Inkspots: Paying homage to the legendary cowpea
by By RICK NORTON Associate Editor
Sep 13, 2012 | 442 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“A cow does not know how much milk it has until the milkman starts working on it. Then it looks round in surprise and sees the pail full to the brim. In the same way, a writer has no idea how much he has to say till his pen draws it out of him. Thoughts will then appear on the paper that he is amazed to find that he possessed. ‘How brilliant!’ he says to himself. ‘I had no idea I was so intelligent.’ But the reader may not be so impressed.”

— Gerald Branan

British author



As a little kid growing up in rural north Mississippi, I knew both cows and peas.

As a bigger little kid a few years later following a family relocation to West Tennessee, I continued to know peas.

But nary a day in my impressionable years in the Magnolia nor Volunteer states did I have an inkling the two had a bond. I didn’t even understand the word inkling, and bond was what glue did for my plastic models.

But now I understand ... about half-a-century late. “Cows” plus “peas” equal “cowpeas.” The whole concept might never have meant a hill of beans to me had it not been for the agrarian families of the Charleston area whose heritage embraced the unsung little veggie.

News accounts of late have pointed to the interdependence of the cow and the pea. Seems that long-ago farmers grew acres and acres and acres of cowpeas as feed for the cows. In return, the cows produced milk — an undeclared delicacy of the day because of its importance in the growth of all the farmers’ little farmers, in the churning of homemade butter and in the making of buttermilk, a most horrid beverage in my unsought opinion.

Don’t get me wrong. Buttermilk’s OK if you can get past the taste. Some will disagree. It is their culinary right.

Along with milk, cows also manufactured another significant product likely used by farmers for the growing of the cowpeas. For these purposes, we will call it ... fertilizer. But it goes by any number of names. Googling will solve the mystery for any who have failed to get the drop on this source of crop nutrition.

Here’s the skinny on cowpeas.

Farmers grew the peas. Cows ate the peas, as well as the farmers ... no, no, no. Cows ate the peas. And farmers ate the peas ... also. The cows did not eat the farmers. Cooked in any number of ways — most of which involved boiling in water — the peas tasted good ... to both the cows and the farmers, although the cows likely ate them raw or dried.

Somewhere and some time in the lineage of legumes, somebody opted to call them cowpeas.

For the confused, cowpea is not a term of complicated means. It is a simple conglomerate, or general name, for bunches of peas. You’ll recognize a few of the names while slapping yourself across the forehead in V8 Vegetable Juice fashion to think that each is in fact a cowpea. I’m talking crowder pea, black-eyed pea, cream pea, purple-hull, silver-hull, and other brothers and sisters of hull fame within the vast pea legion known as vigna unguiculata.

Now some of you are catching on. Vigna unguiculata. It is a term obviously used in most Bradley County kitchens today.

As mentioned earlier, I have a longstanding partnership with the cowpea, and I’m not even native to Charleston which once was known as the Cowpea Capital of the United States. Yes, the capital. To be a Cowpea Capital, farmers must grow lots and lots of cowpeas. Charleston did. And they did it well.

Now with a renewed understanding of the legacy behind the cowpea, I can rightfully claim my favorite to be the purple-hull. That’s what we grew in north Mississippi and West Tennessee. Wherever we lived, we always had gardens. The size of some bordered on fields. Each garden had long, winding rows of purple hull peas. That meant lots of chopping, picking and shelling.

I don’t recollect Dad ever saying to my siblings and me, “Kids, grab your buckets. We need to go pick the cowpeas.” Of course, he didn’t say “purple hulls” either. He just said “peas.” But we understood. It was time to test our backs in the pea patch for hours at a time in the hot summer sun broiling in Deep South humidity in the company of hundreds of big, ugly wasps. When Mom cooked them — the peas, not the wasps — they always tasted great going down, but getting them to the pot was a chapter from farm-life purgatory.

The good folks in Charleston probably felt much the same. Some still do.

Yet, they have taken the bad and created the good. Somebody came up with the idea of paying homage to the cowpea. Somebody formed a committee. And somebody else named it the International Cowpea Festival & Cookoff. It is happening Saturday in the Charleston Park.

Not an expert on honorariums to vegetables, I am nonetheless told this is a big deal. The huge crowd that is expected will enjoy beauty pageants, food, a cowpea cookoff in both professional and amateur divisions featuring Whirlpool ranges, food, an agricultural history via photographs, food, arts and crafts, food, live musicians (no, I’ve never seen a dead man playing the saxophone), children’s games and activities, food, and the grand finale will be a free concert by Grammy Award-winning artist Suzy Bogguss.

It’s a whirlwind of activity all in the name of family fun and cow-friendly peas.

The day kicks off at 10 a.m., Mayor Walter Goode issues the official welcoming at 1 p.m. and the cowpea queen of country music — Bogguss — takes the stage at 7 p.m.

Charleston has made the big time. And the world is watching.

A lot of volunteers have labored for months making this happen. So peas ... err, please ... drop by if you can.