Cowpeas, revisited

Posted on January 21, 2014 in Archives

Chengdu, China. January 21, 2014 Most of this post is taken verbatim from this very site from over 6 years ago – July 2007. At the time I was involved in an inner city community garden in Washington, DC, where it was a constant battle against the elements and the fauna – particularly the rats and squirrels. That seems so long ago. I’ve since spent two years in Bulgaria and am now living in Southwestern China, where, if you look hard enough, you can find just about every edible thing under the sun. Today I ran across these pickled “rice cowpeas,” which are eaten with relish here – and AS a relish, as this package shows. The most common variety of cowpea here is the yard long bean. You may have eaten them in a Chinese restaurant in the States; they’re readily available in Asian markets. They’re very common and popular here in Sichuan, where the green-bean-like pods, which are indeed very long, are invariably chopped into very small pieces and stir-fried. They neither are related to nor taste like green beans and they­­­­ do not cook up like green beans, either. They are cooked long before the beans inside form.

In July 2007, I wrote:

Many food writers seem to think that boiled peanuts and grits are the defining foods of the South, but I sell stone-ground, whole-grain, heirloom corn grits to folks in every state, and many of my customers are chefs in restaurants. Very few of them are, in fact, southerners. And the Lee Bros. have popularized boiled peanuts in New York City, though I do think that the popularity of edamame (boiled green soybeans, very similar in texture and flavor) at sushi bars has helped boiled peanuts’ visibility. Everyone has heard of blackeyed peas, perhaps the best known of the cowpeas. There’s even an heirloom California black-eye. But few people outside the Deep South [in America] grow or eat the myriad other varieties of Vigna unguiculata. The nomenclature, both scientific and common, can be maddening, because all peas and beans, including cowpeas, green peas (Pisum), soybeans (Glycine), pigeon peas (Cajanus), and common beans (Phaselous, which includes lima beans, black beans, Navy beans and green beans) belong to the legume family (Fabaceae). They have subtle and dramatic culinary differences. Red beans and rice, for example, does not taste like hoppin’ john, but unripe cowpeas in the pod can be eaten like unripe common beans (“green beans”) [– and that’s just how they’re mostly consumed here in Sichuan].   At the turn of the century, Sturtevant classified cowpeas with pigeon peas, which also came with the slave trade from Africa, but today cowpeas are recognized as a separate genus. They are neither (green) peas nor (common) beans, but you may hear them called both. If you hear a southerner talking about shelling peas, he means cowpeas, which are also known as crowders, field peas, and, tellingly, southernpeas.

The varieties are as varied as grapes or apples, and southerners tend to crave the type that was grown in their neck of the woods. I’m partial to cream peas and some of the lesser known blackeye types, such as whippoorwills, but, in truth, I love them all. [I have come to love the unripe pods here in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, which sits very close to the same parallel as Charleston and is just as hot and humid.]

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1798 that the cowpea ”is very productive, excellent food for man and beast.” He praised the plants’ ability to improve the “tilth and fertility” of the soil, and he sowed them in the South Orchard at Monticello between 1806 and 1810. Perhaps the cowpea’s reputation as both fodder and a soil enhancer has kept it off tables, because the season is not too long for most American climates. Indeed, the culinary historian William Woys Weaver, grows several varieties in his awe-inspiring garden in Devon, Pennsylvania. Mine matured as quickly as my tomatoes and squash, and before my corn and melons.

The photo at right [from my DC garden] shows whippoorwills on the left, both green and dried, and clay cowpeas, a rare old favorite of Confederate soldiers who both added them to their rations and planted them in fields alongside battlefield stations. One of the great beauties of growing them is that you can eat them fresh (I simply boil a piece of smoked ham hock or neck bones in water until it’s seasoned, then add the peas and cook on a low boil for about half an hour) or save the dried beans for winter use. The green and dried cowpeas in the photo were harvested on the same day from the same plants. [I was] able to harvest several more times, then [I simply left] the plants in the ground to provide nutrients for [the] next year’s corn.

We had great luck with heirloom cowpeas from both and

Since that summer back in the States, the heirloom vegetable craze has really taken off. Many more varieties of cowpeas are now available. When I was a child, over 300 varieties of cowpeas were grown in South Carolina. I would love to see them all come back.