There is a lot of talk these days about sustainable gardening – gardening in a way that builds soil, is gentler on the environment and makes the most efficient use of resources. But after a crazy, busy and hot summer that involved relocation moves for my daughter, my niece, my mother and my in-laws, followed by my husband’s back surgery and topped off with an emergency room visit for my father-in-law, I barely had the time or energy to work on sustaining my vegetable garden. But I was amazed – yet again – at how my garden sustains me.
Because of some unanticipated – but completely appreciated – rain in July (almost 8” in my south Austin backyard!) my garden was producing a decent supply of okra, eggplant, crowder peas, butter beans, Malabar spinach and winter squash. By August the rain tapered off and when we left for South Carolina to help with my in-laws’ move to Texas, I figured that was the end of my summer garden. I didn’t have the heart to ask a neighbor or even my daughter to go out and tend my vegetables amid the mosquitoes and the heat, and I was prepared to let it all go in anticipation of a re-start in fall.
Not surprisingly, upon my return, the okra and eggplant had withered (they were in pots and never really had a chance) and the winter squash was overcome by squash vine borer damage, but miraculously the crowder peas and the butter beans continued to yield. The pods were not as plump and numerous as production in early summer, but still they kept coming, and I kept picking. Every few days I’d have enough for a small meal, and even after I had picked the last of the green pods, there were plenty of dried pods on the vines.
Shelling peas takes a little time but the results are well worth the effort. And cooking field peas is a cinch – they require very little preparation and as they simmer they create a rich potlikker that is nourishing and delicious. Dried peas can be stored in glass jars, plastic bags or any other airtight container and should be consumed within a year for best quality. Believe me, a meal of crowder or black-eyed peas, home-grown and dried from your own garden, dished up with a slice of hot, buttered cornbread in the middle of winter, is really a treat and will garner all kinds of compliments. Serve with a side of simmered collard greens (from your fall garden, of course) for a down home-taste of Texas terroir.
My dad used to say that “everything tastes better with a little pig meat” and it certainly applies to these Southern peas. He grew up in a time when families subsisted on what they produced from the land and nothing from the farm was wasted. As a result, all kinds of vegetables prepared in southern kitchens were flavored with bacon or ham hocks, which add a hearty goodness. But if you are not a fan of bacon you can sauté the onion in olive or vegetable oil or just throw all the ingredients into a pot and let them cook together until tender. They are so good they practically cook themselves.
2 slices bacon, chopped
½ cup chopped onion
2 cups dried Southern peas (crowder, black-eyed, cream, purple hull)
4 cups water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2-3 teaspoons sugar
1-2 teaspoons salt
1-2 teaspoons pepper
Cook bacon until crisp; remove from pan and set aside. Sauté onion in drippings. Add remaining ingredients, adding enough liquid to cover peas by one inch. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer about 2 hours, until peas are tender and liquid has deepened in color and flavor. Add more liquid and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve with crumbled bacon, chopped onion or chow-chow, if desired.
Yield: 4-6 servings