Whatever you call them, they’re just plain delicious. These legumes are generally boiled, along with onions, garlic, bits of ham or bacon. Here in the south, we eat them over rice, cornbread, some mustard greens on the side, and perhaps a large glass of iced tea.
Originating in Africa, specifically in regions that are now Nigeria and Niger, cowpeas are some of the oldest domesticated crops in the world. By 2,300 BC, they reached Southeast Asia. The legumes came to North America in the same ships that carried the tragic cargos of slaves to the New World. Jamaican records show them in use in 1672, Florida, in 1799 and North Carolina in 1714.
High in protein, cowpeas are cultivated on about 31 million acres, eaten by 200 million humans every day, and are a food staple in many underdeveloped countries.
In North America, they gained the name cowpea, because of their use as cattle fodder. Easy to raise, even on marginal land, they grew in popularity, particularly in the south. However, cattle were not the only consumers. Slaves and sharecroppers also ate the legume, and it because known as a “poor man’s” food. And since the location of most “poor men,” i.e., slaves and sharecroppers, lived in the south, they also became known as Southern peas.
Southern or cowpeas come in many varieties, but the best known are black-eyes, purple hulls, crowder, and cream.
As a legume, they put a considerable supply of nitrogen back into the soil. That makes these peas an excellent rotation crop to plant between spring and fall gardens. Drought-resistance and low water requirements make it an ideal crop for our hot Gulf Coast summers.
This plant loves light and sun, well-drained soil, and it does not need fertilizer – another plus. In fact, the plant does not like highly fertile soil, which will severely reduce yield.
Cowpeas mature in 65-75 days. Thrips, aphids, and stinkbugs are three pests that can infest them. Spraying the crop with insecticidal soaps will take care of most infestations.
Plant the peas one-half to one-inch deep, in rows three feet apart. I generally plant two seeds every two inches, increasing the chances of germination. After they form real leaves, you can thin to one plant every four inches.
Seedlings will emerge in 10 to 14 days, depending on soil and weather.
An aside: My Cajun grandmother used to make an excellent dish she called “fevres au riz,” translated “beans and rice.” But when pronounced a little differently, it became “favori,” which means “favorite.” And it certainly was one of my favorites. With chunks of ham and perhaps andouille, slow-cooked over a low fire, it was a fantastic dish, particularly on a cold, wet winter day.