If I had to pick a crop that I most wish were eaten more in Kentucky, this would probably be it. One of the first crops to be domesticated, cowpeas are still a staple in their place of origin, West Africa, and, of course, are well-known in some of the southern states on this side of the Atlantic, having been brought over during the slave trade. They are not as well-known in Kentucky, but my experience suggests they are one of the crops best adapted to the climate here. They shrug off any and all summer heat, and are tolerant of both dry and wet conditions. In some parts of the world they face serious insect pests, but around here they seem to be relatively untroubled by insects and diseases. The pods are usually higher up on the plant, and so they are less likely to become moldy than dry beans are if it is wet and humid leading up to harvest.
They are not only well adapted to our climate. They also taste great and are really nutritious. Cowpeas are an excellent source of protein, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, thiamine, and folate. Dried cowpeas are broadly comparable to dry beans in nutritional value; precise comparisons are complicated because there are also significant differences between different varieties of each.
Cowpeas do not taste exactly the same as beans, but they are similar enough that I treat them as functional equivalents. That is, a recipe that calls for dry beans is a good candidate for making with cowpeas instead. Experiment in this way, and you’ll develop a sense for where you might prefer one or the other.
A note on names: ‘cowpeas’ is a common name as a result of the plants often having been grown for cow fodder. As Jefferson wrote, they are “excellent food for man and beast.” But there are a lot of other names as well, often specific to particular regions and sometimes referring only to a subset of cowpea varieties, e.g., southern peas, black-eye peas (usually refers to varieties that are light in colour with a dark “eye” around the hilum of the seed), and crowder peas (I’m not sure how consistent this usage is, but I think this name is primarily used for varieties with shorter seeds from the seeds being closer together, i.e., crowding, in the pods).
SEASON: harvested in the fall, but can store for years and so available year-round.
HOW TO COOK
Cook cowpeas the same way as you would dry beans. Just keep in mind that cowpeas are small, and so their cooking times will generally be on the short side, i.e., similar to small beans such as Black Turtle or Peregion beans.
I don’t grow all of these varieties every year and certainly don’t always have all of them in stock, but these are some of the varieties liable to show up on my market table sooner or later.
BLACK CROWDER (aka, PEKING BLACK) — Distinctive sweet fragrance and rich “dark” taste.
CALICO CROWDER (aka, POLE CAT) — An early nineteenth-century variety with cream seeds with maroon splotches. Good flavour and creamy texture.
MISSISSIPPI SILVER — Tan seeds that are on the large side for a cowpea.
WHIPPOORWILL — Small tan seeds with dark speckles. Said to have been grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Popular in the nineteenth-century for its superior taste and creamy texture.