The Black-eyed pea, or "cowpea" has been a staple of the southern diet for nearly a century. The history of its conversion from cattle feed to a southern dish began in 1909.
For many years, the black-eyed pea was considered a feed for livestock. In 1909, J. B. Henry, a businessman from Athens, Texas decided to grow large crops of what he called the "pitch-peepered" pea. He had trouble with weevils in the peas, and began to experiment with drying the peas in ovens to kill the creatures. The dried peas were soaked, cooked, and consumed, and came into widespread use in Athens within just a few years. An article titled "The Humble Cowpea" in the 1919 Farm and Ranch Magazine stated that:
"the whole population of Athens, seemingly, and then some," was busily loading sacks of black-eyed peas onto wagons, "rushing around that square like bees around a hive in springtime when the honeysuckle crop is gathered."
Several canneries opened around Henderson county
in the 1930's, canning the "Home Folks" brand
of black-eyed peas, which became a major source of income for the area. Special brands such as the "Good Luck Peas" for New Year's day
, and the "Texas Caviar" brand of pickled peas carried by Nieiman Marcus
were also made.
In 1971, Athens began the yearly Black-Eyed Pea Jamboree. Contestants are asked to cook dishes with the pea as an integral ingredient. The winner of the 2000 festival is a close frind of mine, and cooked a "Black-eyed pea Pecan Pie" for her winning entry. Other entrants have incorporated the pea into almost every dish imaginable, including Jello, pizza, enchiladas, "peachyssoise," quiche, many types of cake and pies, and even black-eyed pea wine.
The good luck image of the black-eyed pea may be traceable to the pharaohs of Egypt, who felt that eating the legume could protect them from the evil eye.
Well-cooked black-eyed peas have a pleasant and distinctive flavor. They are best served hot with baked ham and cornbread.
Texas Highways Magazine, July 1994