Fighting the good fight for the poor old black-eyed pea

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJanuary 5, 2013 

A man from Port Royal called to fuss at me for putting down the black-eyed pea in Friday's column.

He was offended because when I put down the black-eyed pea, I put him down. I was putting down Southerners in general, and poor people specifically, and both groups are sick and tired of being put down.

"It's an insult," he said.

I didn't think I was putting down the black-eyed pea. I thought I was teasing it. Isn't it widely accepted that, despite its high calling on New Year's Day, the black-eyed pea can use all the doctoring imaginable to make it a delicacy?

As another reader put it in an email: "Don't you know it ain't the pea, it's what you put on 'em or in 'em? So your Yankee readers can relate, please see 'oatmeal.' "

The gentleman who called to fuss is not a Yankee, and neither am I, much to his surprise.

He comes from southern Louisiana, where he's wrestled alligators and eaten boudin and all kinds of stuff that people from "off" like to look down upon and stereotype.

It's like suffering through an Erskine Caldwell book or the reality TV show, "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," depicting a 7-year-old Southern beauty queen whose family eats road kill. I understood my caller's frustration. At some point, every Southerner gets fed up with being mocked and portrayed as an illiterate buffoon. Only Andy of Mayberry would have the wisdom to nip it before going pure-T nuts.

The black-eyed pea's story, I was told, is not about good fortune for those who eat peas with rice on New Year's Day.

It's about proud people depending on the old African plant to survive before the world got so high and mighty -- and swamped in debt.

The black-eyed pea was the easiest vegetable to grow down South, my Cajun friend explained. It could thrive without rain. It was the earliest to produce, and it grew abundantly, so even the dirt poor could survive.

The "Encyclopedia of Southern Culture" says it's a variety of the cowpea, which comes under many names: black-eyed peas, crowder peas, blue-hulled peas, whippoorwills, britches and jackets, cuckold's increase, and tiny lady peas.

They were in the "great triumvirate of Southern vegetables," alongside turnips and sweet potatoes.

"Better green but good dry, peas were boiled with a piece of fat salt pork," the encyclopedia says. "With cornbread, they provided enough calories and enough protein to sustain a hard day's work, and that was what the Southern farmer needed.

"The liquid in which any vegetable had been cooked -- the 'pot liquor' -- could be eaten with cornbread, but the pot liquor of cowpeas was especially delicious. Local custom and preference determined whether the cornbread was dunked or crumbled."

In other words, a fight might break out over whether the cornbread was dunked or crumbled.

It's like other delicacies the high brows liked to look down on, like chitlins, gizzards and lard -- and Moon Pies and RC Cola. They're all worth a good fist fight, and I thank the gentleman from Louisiana for bearing his knuckles for the black-eyed pea.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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