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Black-eyed peas bring a taste of magic to the New Year

Southern food with a long history has crossed several cultures and continents.

Renee Studebaker
Top Cowpea and Pork Chili with cheese and corn chips and serve at your game-day party. It could be the extra luck your team needs to win.

The black-eyed pea is one smart little legume.

What else could explain how this ancient plant that's not quite a pea and not quite a bean manages to keep so many of us right where it apparently wants us — believing that it has special powers, thus ensuring that it will live forever.

I know this sounds a bit far-fetched. (I should acknowledge up front that perhaps I've been overly influenced by Michael Pollan's "Botany of Desire," which suggests that plants advance their own agendas, anthropomorphically speaking, by evolving in ways that make them more appealing to us humans.) But read on, and see if you agree that this pea has been very ambitious. A pea with a plan, if you will.

• From the earliest records mentioning black-eyed peas, it seems that this humble pea, indigenous to Africa or the Far East — or both, depending on your historical reference — was intent on traveling the world. The Babylonian Talmud, compiled around the year 500, instructs Hebrews to include several foods on their tables in the New Year for good luck; among them are black-eyed peas. By the 1700s, black-eyed peas (aka cowpeas and Southern peas) had made their way to the West Indies and to America on the ships of slave traders.

• According to one oft-repeated story, the black-eyed pea saved many Confederate soldiers and civilians from starvation. Here's how it goes: When Union troops were stealing livestock and burning food crops in and around Vicksburg, they left behind stores of dried black-eyed peas, apparently because they thought the peas were just feed for cattle, which they had also stolen. Another story kicks the legend up a notch: A ragtag team of starving Confederate soldiers awoke one morning to find themselves just a stone's throw from a field of black-eyed pea vines covered in dried pea pods, ready to harvest. They picked them and they feasted. It was New Year's Day.

• Every year, on New Year's Day, many thousands of people, mostly Southerners, eat at least a few black-eyed peas in hopes that the legumes will bring them good luck and prosperity in the coming year. I know of one instance in which the peas did their magic almost immediately: A friend who was ready to find her soulmate decided she would try eating a big serving of the peas on New Year's Day. Later that month, on Jan. 29, she started dating the man she would eventually marry.

• A quick and totally unscientific survey in my immediate work area revealed that seven out of 10 of my co-workers who admit to eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day say the peas are bland, mushy and generally not very appetizing. But they eat them anyway, for various reasons, including "my mother-in-law makes me."

A sidenote: Is it possible that the magical beans that Jack (of beanstalk fame) handed over to his mother were cowpeas? Just a thought.

• George Washington Carver promoted the planting of black-eyed peas and other cowpeas because, like all legumes, when worked into the soil, they add nitrogen, and so can improve poor soil. Southern farmers soon figured out that planting fields of black-eyed peas one year increased soil fertility enough that other vegetable crops planted the next year in the same field did better.

• Today, the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute estimates that worldwide production of cowpeas is approximately 20 million acres, with Africa being the largest producer. Other countries that produce significant amounts of cowpeas include Brazil, Haiti, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Australia, Bosnia and the United States.

• The "eat local" movement has introduced many to the meaty, slightly sweet (and not at all mushy unless you overcook them) taste of freshly shelled cowpeas, in particular, purple hull peas, close cousins to the black-eye. Crowder peas and Texas cream peas are also popular cowpeas grown in our area. If you've never tasted fresh cowpeas (as opposed to dried or canned), you are missing something really tasty, and yes, quite magical.

rstudebaker@statesman.com; 445-3946

Recipes

Black-eyed peas are not my favorite cowpeas. I prefer purple hull peas, which are grown by a number of small farmers in Central Texas, which means they're often available at farmers' markets during the growing season.

John Engel of Engel Farms froze some of his summer crop of pink-eye peas so he would have peas to sell closer to the New Year's holiday. Look for his booth tonight at the Austin Farmers Market at the Triangle.

I'm putting my faith in purple hull peas for a lucky New Year. (Any cowpea with an eye ought to work, don't you think?) I grew purple hulls in my fall garden and froze enough for a serving or two. However, I'll also be cooking black-eyed peas on Friday, because the other cowpea eater at my house doesn't think purple hulls have the same powers. So I bought a tub of fresh black-eyes at Central Market just for him. (By the way, Central Market has plenty more for sale.)

Cowpea and Pork Chili

I brought a batch of this chili to the office last week and it got rave reviews, even from the guy who only eats black-eyed peas because his mother-in-law makes him.

2 1/2 cups cooked purple hull or pink-eye peas, fresh-shelled or fresh-frozen

1 lb. pork, cut into 1-by-1-inch cubes

Vegetable oil for sautéeing

1 14-oz. can of diced tomatoes (try Muir brand for the best flavor and texture)

1-2 tomato cans of water (or more if finished chili is too thick)

1 cup carrots, chopped

1 cup sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped

1/3 cup green chiles, stemmed and chopped (a mix of Anaheims and serranos is good)

2-3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped

1 Wick Fowler 2-Alarm Chili Kit (available at H-E-B)

Salt and black pepper to taste

Sharp white Cheddar cheese for garnish

To cook peas, combine peas (fresh or frozen) and just enough water to cover in a saucepan. Add a big pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and then skim off the foam that rises to the top. Reduce heat to low and cook for about 15 minutes or until peas are almost tender (al dente). Set aside.

Add pork to a hot skillet (I use cast iron) and sauté until well-browned on all sides. Add 1 can of water and deglaze (scrape the caramelized meat bits from bottom of the pan). Then cover the pan and simmer until meat is tender, about 20 or 30 minutes. If meat starts to dry out, add more water.

While the meat is simmering, in a Dutch oven or large skillet, sauté briefly in vegetable oil all chopped vegetables and garlic. Add can of tomatoes (including juice) and other can of water and stir in the following chili-kit seasonings: 1/2 packet of chili powder, 1 packet of cumin/oregano and 1 packet of hot red pepper; save the salt packet and onion bits for another time. Cover and simmer until carrots are just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain peas and stir into chili. Add meat and all drippings. Mix 1/2 packet of corn masa from the chili kit in 1/4 cup of water and stir into chili. Cover chili and simmer for about 10 more minutes, or until all vegetables are tender (but not mushy). Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with grated cheese on top.

— Renee Studebaker

Black-eyed Pea Salad

If you're a black-eyed pea purist, try this recipe from American-Statesman copy editor Christine Stephenson Forrest. She's been making it for New Year's Day gatherings for many years and always gets requests for the recipe.

Marinade:

1 cup red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. black pepper

2 dashes Tabasco sauce

1/2 cup vegetable oil

Fresh basil to taste, sliced (optional)

Salad:

1 cup red or sweet onion, finely chopped

1 or 2 bell peppers (red, green or a combination), seeded and finely chopped

1 or 2 tsp. minced garlic

1 fresh jalapeño, finely chopped

4 to 6 15-oz. cans black-eyed peas with snaps, drained (or 2 lbs. dried black-eyed peas, soaked, cooked and drained)

Combine marinade ingredients and set aside while sugar and salt dissolve. Chop vegetables and combine with remaining ingredients. Pour in marinade. Refrigerate before serving, preferably overnight. Makes about 3 servings for each can of peas.

— Christine Stephenson Forrest