Mrs. G and I got into a New Year’s Day discussion about whether black-eyed peas and cabbage HAD to be “black-eyed” peas. I mean, “Really?” I explained to her that in Deep East Texas and much of the South, pink-eyed purple hull peas were much more popular, better tasting, and easier to pick (with their purple pods) than mealy, hard to pick (cream pods), black-eyes, and that any fresh or frozen pea was tastier and higher quality than a dried pea or a canned pea (think beef jerky and canned meat versus a fresh cut steak). But she’s very tradition oriented, so dried black-eyed peas it was. In Texas, when I think black-eyed peas I think of North Texas, Central Texas, and South Texas where I see them more commonly grown and consumed. Unfortunately in many grocery stores, black-eyes are all that they sell. Thankfully, a Cajun can make anything taste good. So on New Year’s day we feasted on pot roast, smothered cabbage (with bacon and onion), and black eyed peas (with smoked sausage) over rice.
Mrs. G is only familiar with a few kinds of peas, so I tried to explain to her that there were literally over a hundred kinds, including several common groups other than black-eyes (creams, purple hulls, crowders, etc.). Certainly she had never heard of red rippers, lady fingers, Mississippi silverskins, or the myriad of others. After all, traditionally each area and family in the South had their own go-to pea that they would eat fresh and save seed each year for both next year’s crop and for dining on dried, soaked, and cooked when fresh weren’t available.
I tried to explain how special all that diversity was and how some fellow in Athens, Texas got everybody hooked on black-eyes through clever marketing and storytelling, but she wasn’t buying what I was selling. Should would if it was QVC!
I’ve read all kinds of stories on why we eat peas and greens on New Years, most of them made up and plagiarized in my opinion. I think if one dug deep, they’d realize peas and rice are an African staple and spread throughout the South along with many other African crops and dishes like okra and gumbo that we take for granted.
Since I have several new interns in my Smith County Master Gardener class from the North and one from Scotland (oh how I love that accent) I should point out that what we call peas in the South aren’t true peas (Pisum) from Europe or beans (Phaseolus) from America, but belong to the African genus Vigna instead. Yard long or asparagus “beans” are in the same Vigna genus.
All the edible seed chatter gnawing at my now married brain reminded me that it was winter and both seed catalog and seed saving time. Despite the fact that I do most of my specialty seed purchasing on-line these days, I still receive a plethora of seed catalogs full of hope and intrigue and I still collect and save lots of my own seed. I have an entire chest time freezer full of assorted seed! I still remember how cool it was when my Emanis grandparents would go to the freezer and pull out brown paper bags full of different garden seeds to be planted.
Jack isn’t the only one that thought beans were magic. I’ve always been enamored with that fact that an entire “beanstalk” is living inside of that small bean. Perhaps it started with a story book, but it wasn’t long before one of my elementary school teachers had us place pinto beans in baby jars of moist paper towels to watch them wipe the sleep from their eyes and reach out to the world. I remember bringing mine home and placing it in a pot on our back patio in Longview. Every person needs a plant and every plant needs a home.
Somewhere along the way, friend of my parents knew that I was born a gardener and would occasionally send pass-a-long seeds my way. The most interesting were the giant pink beans of the sword bean (Canavalia gladiata) somebody gave my dad to gift me. I still remember them scattered in the back of his station wagon where he hauled musical instruments to and from schools and his music store. In addition to the very large beans, they made even larger pods and vines, far overwhelming the bamboo poles I erected for them in my little garden spot allocated to me at our Shelby County weekend farm where my dad maintained his cow herd.
That garden spot and all subsequent gardens spots was special to me. But just as exciting to growing a garden or any new plant to me is the beginning seed, packed with a tiny lunch box and built-in instructions for starting life alone in the world without its parents or even knowing where its home will be. As an amateur plant breeder and remedial student of genetics, what really makes my day is knowing that each seed produces a genetically different plant entirely new to planet earth. Most are so similar looking that no one would ever notice. I live to notice. Certainly most vegetables and annual bedding plants were bred for uniformity. But with wild plants and intentional or chance hybrids, there is much more diversity in the offspring. So once in a blue moon an ugly duckling or a giant bean stalk appears and I’m there to watch its birth and development like my own PBS special produced just for me. Though mostly unnoticed or not cared about, our world is full of magic and seed are one of the first I grew to love. Happy New Year.