Written by David Shields
Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009
Until the 1920s, the rice pea stood highest of all the field peas in the regard of southern gourmets.
While the soul food cook might cherish the black-eyed pea, and the upcountry farmer loves his red iron and clay peas, those pulses lacked the delicacy for fine cuisine.
I. M., a writer for the Boston Cooking School Magazine in 1915, sang the rice pea’s virtues: “[T]here is a field pea called the rice pea, grown extensively in southern states, which is white, eye and all, with a slightly creamy tinge, and it is even more delicate of flavor than black-eyed peas; these are as delicate as early June peas, and they retain their natural color when cooked, and do not change the color of meat cooked with them. Perhaps the reason rice peas are not grown more generally is that they are not as hardy as black-eyed peas and other field peas. These delicately flavored rice peas, cooked with tender young pork, are far and away more appetizing than pork and beans, and almost or quite as nutritious. They are good, either cooked after they have become dry in the autumn and winter, or when young and tender in the late spring and early summer. Southern ladies often cook the tender young peas, pods and all, as snap beans are cooked.”
While rice peas proved difficult to grow and subject to insect attack, they appeared on the southern table at various points in the year, as the legumes were planted in rotation with corn and other crops. Supplanted by cow pea varieties easier to grow, the rice pea has become a rare variety available from three heirloom seed brokers. Its culinary qualities, however, promise that it will undergo a renovation in regard in the near future.
Pick the pea pods when they are now fully mature. Wash them thoroughly, for they tend to be buggy. Have a big pot of salted water on a rolling boil. Deposit as many pods as your diners may eat. Do not cook overlong. Ten minutes at most. Drain water and rinse beans with cold water. Try to get them to room temperature. Put in a dressing of oil, vinegar, mustard, and salt. Some add mint to freshen the taste. I prefer it without.