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    Are black-eyed peas really peas?



Black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata) are a variety of the cowpea and are part of the family of beans & peas (Leguminosae or Fabaceae in the USA). Although called a pea, it is actually a bean. Both peas and beans are legumes, and both have edible seeds and pods. According to the Penguin Companion to Food, bean is a “term loosely applied to any legume whose seeds or pods are eaten, not classed separately as a pea or lentil.” Beans traditionally were in the genus Phaseolus, but now some of the species, including the black-eyed pea, are in the genus Vigna. Peas are in the genus Pisum.

The common names of beans and peas are not consistent; other legumes popularly called “peas” are the butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea), the chickpea (Cicer arietinum), pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan), and the winged pea (Lotus tetragonolobus). As legumes they are extremely nourishing vegetables, both to people and to the soil. They are able to fix nitrogen, meaning nitrogen from the air is taken in by the plant and bacteria living in the roots convert it to a useable plant nutrient. Because of this process, nitrogen-fixing plants improve soil quality by adding nutrients back into the soil.

Fun Facts about black-eyed peas:

  • Cultivated since pre-historic times in China and India, they are related to the mung bean. The ancient Greeks and Romans preferred them to chickpeas.

  • Brought to the West Indies from West Africa by slaves, by earliest records in 1674.

  • Originally used as food for livestock, they became a staple of the slaves’ diet. During the Civil War, black-eyed peas (field peas) and corn were thus ignored by Sherman’s troops. Left behind in the fields, they became important food for the Confederate South.

  • In the American South, eating black-eyed peas and greens (such as collards) on New Year’s Day is considered good luck: the peas symbolize coins and the greens symbolize paper money.

  • They are a key ingredient in Hoppin’ John (peas, rice and pork) and part of African-American “soul food.”

  • Originally called mogette (French for nun). The black eye in the center of the bean (where it attaches to the pod) reminded some of a nun’s head attire.
Standard DisclaimerRelated Web Sites
  • Peas, Black-Eyed USDA fact sheet on storage, cooking, nutritional facts, and a few recipes. PDF.
  • New Year's Day Black-eyed Peas National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). From the White House archives, First Lady Laura Bush’s recipe for New Year’s Day Black-eyed Peas.
  • Hoppin John National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). From the White House archives, a recipe for Hoppin’ John in a blog post from Let’s Move, at the Obama White House.
  • Black-Eyed Pea Fritters A recipe from the Peace Corps in Africa, using fresh peas.

Library of Congress Web SiteFurther Reading
  • Aguiar, J. L., and others. Factor for estimating nitrogen contribution of cowpea as a cover crop. Journal of agronomy & crop science, v. 186, May 15, 2001: 145-149.
  • Albala, Ken. Beans: a history. New York, NY, Berg, 2007.
  • Banks-Payne, Ruby. Ruby’s low-fat soul food cookbook. Chicago, Ill., Contemporary Books, c1996. 175 p.
  • Berry, Elizabeth, and Florence Fabricant. Elizabeth Berry’s great bean book. Berkeley, Calif., Ten Speed Press, c1999. 129 p.
  • Borghesi, Emma. The Beans & Grains Bible: the ultimate resource, from kidney beans and black beans to modern superfoods such as quinoa and farro. San Diego, CA, Thunder Bay Press, 2015.
  • Davidson, Alan. The Penguin companion to food. New York, Penguin Reference, 2002. 1072 p.
  • Ferguson, Sheila. Soul food: classic cuisine from the deep South. New York, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. 208 p.
  • Green, Aliza. The bean bible: a legumaniac’s guide to lentils, peas, and every edible bean on the planet! Philadelphia, PA Running Press Book Publishers, c2000. 338 p.
  • Hayes, Isaac. Cooking with heart & soul. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, c2000. 222 p.
  • Lal, Rattan. Managing the soils of Sub-Saharan Africa. Science, v. 236, May 29, 1987: 1069-1076.
  • Lewis, Edna, and Scott Peacock. The gift of Southern cooking; recipes and revelations from two great Southern cooks. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. 332 p.
  • Mariani, John F. The Encyclopedia of American food and drink. New York, Lebhar-Friendman Books, 1999. 380 p.
  • Miller, Adrian. Soul food: the surprising story of an American cuisine, one plate at a time. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
  • Miss Sadie’s southern cooking: classic southern recipes from truly southern families. Highland Village, Tex., Cookbook Resources, c2005. 288 p.
  • Singh,B. B. Cowpea: the food legume of the 21st century. Madison, WI. Crop Science Society of America, 2014.
  • White, Joyce Adams. Soul food: recipes and reflections from African-American churches. New York, HarperCollinsPublishers, 1998. 355 p.
  • Withee, John E. Growing and cooking beans. Dublin, N.H., Yankee, 1980. 143 p.

SearchFor more print resources...
Search on "Beans," "Cowpea," "Cookery--Southern States," "Cookery, American--Southern style," or "African American cookery in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Color drawing of a black-eyed pea plant.
Black-eyed pea plant. Thomas Jefferson praised it as “… very productive, excellent food for man and beast.” From the National Park Service Web site.

Photo: bright violet bloom.

Photo: grey-violet bloom.

Photo: light violet bloom.
Examples of Vigna unguiculata blooms. National Plant Germplasm System (USDA/ARS) Web site.

Line drawing of plant with leaves, bloom and pod.
Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp. - blackeyed pea. National Resources Conservation Service, USDA Web site.

Photo: plant with leaves and long pea pods.
Vigna unguiculata pods. National Plant Germplasm System (USDA/ARS) Web site.

Photo: hanging sign, "E & A Restaurant, Soul Food, Brakfast Lunch Dinner."
E & A Soul Food Restaurant, 82 Straight Street, Paterson, New Jersey. American Memory, Library of Congress.

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 September 17, 2018
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