Purple hull peas offer rich taste, rich legacy

| February 25, 2015
Ephraim Smiley

Ephraim Smiley

By Ephraim Smiley

Special to Frost Illustrated

I was born in Wilcox County, Ala., on a dusty road in a tiny shack where the blacktop ends. Miss Martha Kelsaw was my midwife and brought me into this world.

I remember during , my childhood ,the yearly late-summer migrations ” home” to Coy, Ala.

My parents would drive the 800 hundred pre-interstate miles from Fort Wayne in 24 grueling and sometimes terrifying hours.The trains, fog,heavy traffic and detours took a toll on their patience. Once we crossed the Mason Dixon Line, we only stopped for gas. My mother usually packed a lunch of fried chicken.During the turbulent ’60s, the local white people weren’t always hospitable to northern black folk.


Ephraim Smiley's great grandparents, John and Aimee Cook, were Alabama homesteaders.

Ephraim Smiley’s great grandparents, John and Aimee Cook, were Alabama homesteaders.

Alabama summers were surreal, akin to a primitive camping trip through time and space reminiscent of Rod Serling’s TV hit of the time, the “The Twilight Zone.” Mule drawn wagons, quaint country stores, outhouses and wood burning stoves were the norm.

Food seemed to taste better in Alabama. I think it was the combination of oak flavored food cooked in iron pots on a wood burning stove.

My great grand parents John Cook Sr. and Amie Cook were an African American example of the painting  “American Gothic.” They  were homesteaders and lived in a clearing surrounded by their farm fields and a small woods. My great grandmother Moma Cook was adept at botany, biology, chemistry, animal husbandry and earth science without any formal education.

Moma Cook was also quite skilled in the kitchen and it was at her farm  that I was introduced to the purple hull pea. She would don her apron and placed her biggest dishpan in her lap full of unshelled peas. My five brothers and sisters, as well as my parents, would sit on the front porch and shell peas with her and listen intently as she discussed family, church and community news. I remember their garden fresh green aroma and my red stained fingers from shelling purple hull peas. Most of all I remember the mouth watering taste of freshly cooked purple hull peas with a flavoring of okra and smokehouse ham combined with skillet cornbread, fried collard greens and chicken “off the yard.”

Little did I know that the purple hull pea is a member of the cowpea plant family made up of the blackeye pea,crowder pea and several other varieties. Cowpeas were brought to America by slaves from West Africa and cultivated before the birth of Christ. Like their name suggests, cowpeas originally were fed to livestock. Slaves cooked the leaves like spinach and later discovered the amazing taste of the peas. The great African American scientist George Washington Carver taught farmers in the south to use cowpeas after growing cotton as cowpeas are nitrogen fixers and help restore depleted soil.

Cowpeas are rich in vitamins and protein, they help shield the body from cancer, anemia and help to prevent birth defects for pregnant women.

Cowpeas are easily grown, they prefer average soil, full sun with few insect pests.

The purple hull pea represents the resourcefulness of African American farmers who used the juice from the purple hulls to make a grape flavored jelly and fattened up their hogs with the spent hulls.

Purple hull peas—a southern comfort food .

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Category: History

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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