Field peas are the South's most varied legume, but many cooks never venture past black-eyed peas and might not realize there are other choices. We should, however. Although black-eyed peas are good, they are the Red Delicious apples of the field pea universe: the most well-known and widespread but a bit generic and not necessarily the tastiest or most interesting.
So what are field peas? They are technically beans and have little in common with green English peas. Field peas are cowpeas, so named because they were grown as a rotational crop in the fields instead of in kitchen gardens. Dozens of different types—what we now call heirloom selections—were grown in Southern communities that valued them for their flavor and ability to flourish in local conditions. Families and neighbors often saved the seeds and passed them down through the generations. We still have heirloom types in the South with charming, descriptive names such as Whippoorwill, Dimpled Brown Crowder, Turkey Craw, Washday, Red Ripper, and Old Timer.
Freshly harvested peas often stick close to home, unlike dried black-eyed peas that are shipped far and wide. The best sources for them are farmers' markets, family gardens, and hometown grocery stores. A single shopping trip can reveal the tastiest treasures. As with summer tomatoes, locally grown, peak-of-season peas are hard to beat. The good news is that they freeze and keep well, so we can preserve the harvest.
Some markets sell field peas still in their colorful pods, but most do the shelling for us. Fresh peas cook quickly compared to dried peas and beans that must be soaked. Their flavor and texture range from delicate and vegetal to earthy and meaty, but they are usually lighter and less murky than dried black-eyed peas. (When dried is the only option, we can turn to one of the excellent Southern types, such as the iconic Sea Island red pea, the original used in hoppin' John.)
Many of us eat field peas for luck on January 1, but to limit them to a single winter day (or use only the ubiquitous black-eyed kind) is to miss out on their delightful versatility. All sorts of field peas are easy to find and love in the South. Lucky us.
Each kind has its own qualities, but if you can't find a specific pea mentioned in a recipe, enjoy what you can find locally. Most types of field peasare interchangeable. Here are a few of our favorite field peas.
They got their name based on how they grow: tightly packed inside their pods. There are many different types of crowders, such as Calico and Blue Goose, but all of them become plump and creamy when cooked.
These pale peas with purple eyes (also called pink-eyed peas) grow in colorful green-and-purple pods. Although they darken when cooked, they're a popular and flavorful alternative to the usual black-eyed peas.
Sweet and tender lady peas remain creamy white or light green even after they have been cooked. And unlike other field peas, lady peas (also called Lady Cream peas) produce a clear, not cloudy, potlikker.
Zippers are small and vary in color from pale yellow to light brown. They are prized for their mild flavor and creamy texture. These are easy to shell too—the string on the pod acts like a zipper, hence the name.