Cowpea Festival & Cook-off set to boil
by RICK NORTON, Associate Editor
Sep 14, 2012 | 2557 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Circle the wagons, drag out the heavy wooden spoons and pull up a stump; it’s time to start the inaugural International Cowpea Festival and Cook-off in the former Cowpea Capital of the U.S.A. — north Bradley County’s own tiny hamlet of friendly folks and country ways called Charleston.

The town’s population today is less than a thousand, but that could double, triple or quadruple ... or perhaps somewhere beyond on Saturday when the global spin on legume cuisine takes center stage.

The doin’s get under way at 10 a.m., Charleston Mayor Walter Goode offers the official welcoming at 1 p.m., the cowpea cookery highlights much of the afternoon and cowpea queen Suzy Bogguss, a Grammy Award-winning country artist riding in from Nashville, takes the main stage at 7 p.m.

And according to area meteorologists, it will all be happening under clear skies dotted with a few calming clouds, low humidity and no rain. The day’s events are free with the only expenses being $5 for parking in the festival lots and another $5 for the first 500 who want to buy-in on a few hours of sampling the cowpea fare that will cooked up by five area chefs on a set of Whirlpool gas ranges, as well as that hauled in from cowpea kitchens across the region by the nonprofessionals; that is, those who don’t get paid to cook.

“We have heard so many great comments about the festival,” according to Melissa Woody, co-chair of the hard-working committee that has spent months organizing the first-time event while recruiting a slew of pea-pickin’ sponsors. “Lots of people have told me they would see me there so we are super excited about what Saturday will hold for this first major celebration of the cowpea and the community of Charleston!”

Sharing her time between helping to organize the festival and tending to her bushel basket of chores as vice president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, Woody for several months has served as primary voice of the cowpea. Her co-chair is Darlene Goins and they have shared the planning spotlight with a growing committee of locals — many of them lifelong residents of the Charleston and area community.

“One reminder we want to make to everyone who plans to attend the festival Saturday is that the concert (all main-stage acts, including Bogguss) is free and parking in the festival lots is $5,” Woody said. “We also encourage people to bring their lawn chairs or blankets for maximum comfort while they’re enjoying a great lineup of music.”

The featured country musician will bring a wealth of popular lyrics to the Charleston stage, but she won’t be doing it alone. Music will fill the air beginning at about 1 p.m. featuring soloists like Sue Goode, Demetrius Ramsey, Rachel Belew and The Brown Sisters (Sidney and Kennedy). At 2 p.m., the Heartstrings take the stage and they will be followed by the Roaring 50s at 3 p.m., Perry Suits and the Third Degree at 4 p.m., The Collins Brothers Band at 5:30 p.m., and Bogguss rounds out the entertainment beginning at 7 p.m.

Bush Brothers & Company — the folks who can all those beans — has signed on as the festival’s primary sponsor and Whirlpool Corp. is hosting the Cowpea Cook-off for both the amateur and professional chef divisions. Whirlpool, which employs more than 2,000 workers in Bradley County through its manufacturing plant (Whirlpool Cleveland Division) and call center (Whirlpool Cleveland Customer eXperience Center), is providing five gas ranges for the professional chef cook-off. Two of the 30-inch freestanding ranges are being donated — one as a festival door prize and one will be used as a fundraiser for the Hiwassee River Heritage Center that is being constructed in Charleston.

“Everyone who buys a souvenir spoon ($5) is registered for the door-prize drawings,” Woody said. “People can also buy extra door-prize tickets (or when spoon supplies run out) for $2 each.”

Of the Whirlpool decision not only to provide the onsite ranges, but to donate a pair of them, Woody exclaimed, “This was huge news for us! I was speechless!”

Saturday’s lineup includes more than just cowpea cooking and music. It all starts at 10 a.m. with some family entertainment like children’s games, air toys and “Pea”-caso art projects that will continue through 6 p.m. The Calico Squares take the main stage at 10 a.m. also. The wooden spoon sales begin at 10 a.m. at Cook-off Corner and will continue until the 500 allotment runs out. Also at 10 a.m., check-in begins for the “Princess and the Cowpea” Natural Beauty Pageant. The pageant gets under way at 11 a.m.

From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. — on the hour, every hour — storytelling will be offered at the Butterfly Bush.

Noon is the deadline for Cowpea Cook-off amateur chef entries at Cook-off Corner.

The Charleston mayor’s welcoming starts at 1 p.m. on the main stage, and from 1 to 5 p.m. the Whirlpool Cowpea Cook-off samples and demonstrations will be offered at Cook-off Corner.

While sampling the variety of cowpea delights in the afternoon, festival goers will be entertained from the slate of main-stage musicians, leading up to the Bogguss concert which is sponsored through the Chamber of Commerce.

Another festival highlight is set for 6:30 p.m. with the announcement of Cowpea Cook-off winners, the Agri-Photo Competition winners and the introduction of Little Miss Cowpea. The marketplace booths, featuring farmers market produce and other agrarian goodies, will close at 6:30 p.m. A slate of concession stands, food vendors, and arts and crafts booths will dot the Cowpea Festival horizon throughout the day.

Joining Bush Brothers & Company and Whirlpool as key sponsors for the day is Meagher & Meagher Furniture featuring Jamison Bedding as prime sponsor of the “Princess and the Cowpea” pageant.

Buckets of other sponsors are in the mix as well. Among them are Haney Meat Company which is bringing Heritage Way, which is a series of booths displaying agricultural information that tells Charleston’s history and its cowpea lineage.

Other sponsors are Olin Chlor-Alkaline which is sponsoring the Family Fun area; the Farm Credit of Mid-America, which is bringing the marketplace of fresh produce, arts and crafts and other goods; Grissom Funeral Home and Crematory, and Ralph Buckner Funeral Home and Crematory that are hosting some of the afternoon music; and CPQ Professional Imaging Inc. and Homestead Lawn & Tractor Co. that are sponsoring the photo competition.

Other sponsors are Bradley County Farm Bureau and Farm Bureau Insurance, ACE Hardware, River Valley Ag Credit and Cracker Barrel.

Proceeds from Saturday’s festival will support the new Hiwassee River Heritage Center.

“Other towns have unique food festivals celebrating everything from cornbread and green beans to banana pudding and biscuits,” Woody told the Cleveland Daily Banner months ago in the festival’s early planning. “We want to be on the ‘plate’ so to speak. We have a true history with the cowpea and want to celebrate its place in Southern culture.”

For the few who haven’t heard, the cowpea’s roots stretch deep into Charleston’s history. The town earned the title of Cowpea Capital of the U.S.A. because in the old days farmers grew acres and acres of cowpeas that first were used as feed for the animals and livestock, and later the farmers and their wives found ways to cook the legumes for the people tables.

The region’s cowpeas were so bountiful that they were shipped to distant states, regions and countries. “Cowpea” is a generic term for the crowder pea, black-eyed pea, cream pea, purple-hull, silver-hull and other field pea varieties whose scientific name is vigna unguiculata.

In short, it’s a legume but it’s no small hill of beans to Charleston and Hiwassee River region history. To folks in this area’s old days, the cowpea was life ... to man and beast.

Last-minute questions can be directed to Woody (423-472-6587) or Goins (423-413-8284). Information is also available at the event’s website at