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
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
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
- 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
- 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
of a nun’s head attire.
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.
A recipe from the Peace Corps in Africa, using fresh peas.
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.
Ruby. Ruby’s low-fat soul food cookbook. Chicago,
Ill., Contemporary Books, c1996. 175 p.
Elizabeth, and Florence Fabricant. Elizabeth Berry’s
great bean book. Berkeley, Calif., Ten Speed Press, c1999.
- 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.
Alan. The Penguin companion to food. New York, Penguin
Reference, 2002. 1072 p.
Sheila. Soul food: classic cuisine from the deep
South. New York, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. 208 p.
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.
Isaac. Cooking with heart & soul. New York, G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, c2000. 222 p.
Rattan. Managing the soils of Sub-Saharan Africa. Science, v. 236, May 29, 1987: 1069-1076.
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.
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.
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.
Joyce Adams. Soul food: recipes and reflections from
African-American churches. New York, HarperCollinsPublishers,
1998. 355 p.
John E. Growing and cooking beans. Dublin, N.H., Yankee,
1980. 143 p.
more print resources...
Search on "Beans," "Cowpea," "Cookery--Southern
States," "Cookery, American--Southern
style," or "African American cookery
in the Library of Congress Online
Black-eyed pea plant. Thomas Jefferson praised it as “… very productive, excellent food for man and beast.” From the National Park Service Web site.
of Vigna unguiculata blooms. National
Plant Germplasm System (USDA/ARS) Web site.
unguiculata (L.) Walp. - blackeyed pea. National Resources Conservation
Service, USDA Web site.
unguiculata pods. National
Plant Germplasm System (USDA/ARS) Web site.
E & A
Soul Food Restaurant, 82 Straight Street, Paterson, New Jersey. American
Memory, Library of Congress.