Some beans will grow 10 months out of the Lowcountry year. They are important crops on the Sea Island truck farms south of Charleston. All kinds are grown in the Lowcountry, from the tiniest “lady peas” to big Old World favas. Beans that are eaten whole, cooked in the pod, are usually called “green beans,” “string beans,” or “pole beans”; two recipes follow. Tender young green beans are also “jarred,” as Geechees call canning (see Dilly Beans).
Shelled beans, often called “peas,” might be any of more than 300 varieties grown here. These are not English peas—though we do grow them as well—but crowder peas, black-eyes, butter beans, Sieva (also called Sewee and pronounced “sivvy”) beans, field peas, and whippoorwills—all members of the Leguminosae family, the beans. Sieva beans are the smallest of the lima beans, a delicious butter bean that has no equal. They are said to have been grown here by the Sewee Indians when Europeans arrived, though all lima beans supposedly originated in South America. Real Sandlappers know that the best beans of all are the volunteer field peas that come up in the soybean fields in the fall. Field peas (called “cowpeas” when dried), black-eyed peas, and crowder peas—beans as well—are cooked, like butter beans, with a piece of cured pork and served over rice. Made with dried peas in wintertime, the dish becomes hoppin’ john.
Peas and rice appear in equatorial cuisines around the world, and the complete protein this combination provides is legend. The West African slaves would have been familiar with pigeon peas and rice, an African dish that remains unchanged in the Caribbean, where the Cajanus genus, of which they are specific, will grow; it has been suggested that hoppin’ john is a bastardization of the French pois à pigeon. In the Bahamas, “Hop and John” includes Guinea corn, or sorghum, as the grain and black- eyed peas as the legume. The one remaining local vendor of produce in the city Market now sells dried “13-Bean Soup Mix,” as a sort of homage to our culinary heritage, but even the vegetables she sells are from Florida. Fortunately, in the summer of 1989 a Charleston Farmers Market was begun again at Marion Square, in the center of the city. The first crop of butter beans and crowder peas comes in June or July (there is another crop in the fall); I gladly pay a premium for hand-picked, shelled peas. I blanch some of them for a few minutes and freeze in plastic bags for winter use. All the others I cook in similar fashion:
Put the water and cured meat in a pan and bring it to a boil. Cook, uncovered, at a low boil for about 30 minutes or until the water is flavored by the meat. Then add the peas, return to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for about another 30 minutes, until the peas are just tender.
Seldom do I eat the peas on the same day they are cooked. The most typical Lowcountry meal of summer might include peas and rice, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, corn bread, and fried okra. Serve the peas over rice, with plenty of pot likker (the corn bread will sop up what the rice doesn’t).
Relishes are always served with peas and rice. Corn relish goes well with Sieva beans and rice; fresh peach and coconut chutney complements field peas and rice. With the fall crop of butter beans, artichoke relish is more appropriate.
© 1992 All rights reserved. Published by UNC Press.