A few weeks back I went to the Howell's Farm truck down at the Methodist Church on Davidson Road. They had the usual squashes and Bradley tomatoes and okra for $3.00 a pound. And that day, instead of lima, or butter beans, they were selling Lady Peas for $5.00 a pound, which in my valuation of Vegetable-dom, rates as a luxury item. Since I had never heard of a Lady Pea, I decided to buy a bag. They were small and white and unassuming. Nothing about them looked pricey.
Back home, I went to the cookbook shelves to see what Southern cooks did with them.
Edna Lewis, in her "Taste of Country Cooking", does not mention them. Nor does "Charleston Receipts". The Four Great Southern Cooks were silent as well. I did find a recipe for Lady Peas cooked with salt pork in "The Southern Heritage Cookbook-Company's Coming!", published by Oxmoor House in 1983. Boil the peas in water flavored with salt pork, season them with salt, drain them and take them to church for Sunday dinner to feed the crowd and the visiting preacher on his one Sunday a month in your town.
They must not have cost $5.00 a pound back then. Why are they so expensive now?,
Here is what Martha Hall Foose says in her "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea", published in 2008 by Clarkson Potter,
"Lady Peas are hard to get, hard to pick, tender, expensive, fought over when in short supply, and turn white at maturity". Mrs. Foose, who lives in Mississippi and is an Executive Chef at The Viking Cookware cooking school, calls these little field peas "elegant". She also warns us against shifty truck farmers who pass other, lesser field peas off as Lady Peas to the"undiscriminating or ill-informed".
I hope she does not mean me, for when it comes to field peas, I am uninformed. For I, even after 31 years in the South, am a Brooklyn born, New England raised Yankee who grew up eating peas from a pod and not from a bean, which is what a field pea is. A bean. A legume-Vigna sinensis, which grows only where the summers are very long and very hot.
I cooked my Lady Peas in chicken broth until they were tender. I seasoned the broth with salt and a little onion powder, and after I drained the peas ,I tossed them with three strips of finely crumbled bacon, a tablespoon or so of bacon drippings, and a few tablespoons of heavy cream. It was a dish anyone would pronounce good ,and certainly good enough to feed the preacher.
I did find this delightful vignette from Janis Owens, author of "The Cracker Kitchen", published by Scribner in 2009. Mrs. Owens is talking of field peas in general when she writes that one of her cousins rejected a would be beau because he would not try the field peas her family tried to feed him at dinner. She says that now all suitors approaching the women in her clan must first pass "the field pea test".
"Refusing to eat field peas for any reason is just a basic red flag. It speaks volumes", says Mrs. Owens.
Here are photos of what I hope were Lady Peas!