History of the Black-eyed Pea

Like most folks in the South, Athenians have been eating Black-Eyed Peas longer than anyone can remember. The modern age of the black-eyed pea euphoria began around 1909, when the late J. B Henry, an Athens businessman, decided to grow the pitch-peepered legume in large quantity. As J.B.’s granddaughter Nancy Duff tells it, "He discovered the dried black-eyed pea when he was experimenting with ways to rid the pea vine of weevils and dried them out in an oven on East Tyler Street." Long after J.B.’s death in 1940, folks still spoke of him as the "Black-Eyed Pea King of East Texas."

For many years, some southerners and many northerners viewed the black-eye, or cowpea, as mere livestock feed, but Athenian efforts did much to change that. A 1919 Farm and Ranch magazine article titled "The Humble Cowpea" stated that "the whole population of Athens, seemingly, and then some," was busily loading sacks of black-eyed peas onto wagons, "rushing around that square like bees around a hive in springtime when the honeysuckle crop is gathered."

Several canning plants opened in the late 1930s and early 1940s and the Home Folks brand of black-eyed peas became one of the town’s largest businesses. For many years, the company marketed a specially labeled brand called Good Luck Peas for New Year’s Day, and Neiman Marcus carried Home Folks’ pickled black-eyes as "Texas Caviar" as late as 1971. Home Folks owner Frank Dorsey closed the plant in the early 1970s, but Henderson County agricultural extension agent Rick Hirsch says a lot of the area farmers and backyard gardeners still grow the peas, though current production runs less than in past decades.

To memorialize the black-eyed boom days, in 1971 Athens unveiled the first-ever Black-Eyed Pea Jamboree. Categories in a cook-off have utilized black-eyed peas in green Jell-O, pizza, enchiladas, "peachyssoise," quiche, "every kind of cake and pie you can think of", and even black-eyed pea wine. The late Bill Perryman, an Athens oil man, invented a perennial jamboree favorite, the peatini. "It’s a martini with marinated black-eyed peas instead of olives," says Mary Ann Perryman, Bill’s widow. "The recipe is in the Dallas restaurant’s Routh Street Cookbook. We even patented the peatini logo."

Most pea historians trace the good luck image of pigmented legumes to the pharaohs of Egypt. The late Elmore Rural Torn of Taylor, Texas, founder of the International Black-Eyed Pea Appreciation Society and father of actor Rip Torn, said that certain Asiatic, African, and European cultures ate black-eyed peas to protect them from the Evil Eye. Local Athenian, Mary Lou Williams points out that southerners ate more cowpeas than usual during the Civil War out of necessity, then continued the ritual each New Year’s Day as a gesture of humility. The tradition must have declined a bit at some point, however, as Frank Tolbert (whose Dallas newspaper column focused on Athens so much that one reader accused him of running for town mayor) often credited Elmore Torn with revival of the good-luck meal in this country.

Make plans to visit Athens this fall season.

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