My mother was born on a farm in rural Tennessee in the mid 1930s, after the Great Depression ended but before economic recovery found that particular remote outpost. Her father, who had the God-given talent of being able to fix anything mechanical at first sight, chose instead to be a preacher and to live off the land with his wife (who came from a higher station in the world but grew accustomed to farming) and their growing family.
He had a green thumb, my grandfather, which may or may not have been related to his native engineering talents, and he worked hard, so the farm produced. He rotated crops, studied weather and water, and adapted. But the farm life is a hard one, even for the most successful farmers, a club to which my grandfather never belonged. And when my mother left home at 16 to study music and write (defying her father’s wishes that she train to become a church pianist), she did not intend to return to the farm for anything more than the occasional visit.
When she left the farm, though, my mother didn’t cut the roots. Into her new life she took both her mother’s cooking skills (because custard is custard, whether the cook is in Paris, Tennessee or Paris, France) and a lifetime appreciation for fresh vegetables and fruits, prepared simply if “prepared” in any way at all. And she was forever a farmer’s daughter food snob, the kind who would drive far out of her way to shop at a farm stand in summer so as never to buy cantaloupe, tomatoes, corn, or peaches from a grocery store bin.
All of these things she passed on, in one form or another, to my sister and me. Though she was the “city girl” of the family, she returned to her parents’ farm regularly, especially after we were born. When we visited my grandparents’ farm, mostly on holidays and a couple of times each year during growing season, we typically stayed for the entire day because the drive was more than an hour in each direction. We’d head out in the early morning and arrive with enough time for walking in the fields and orchard before setting up for dinner (meaning the big midday meal). After listening to the women’s kitchen gossip during clean-up, we’d sit in a big circle in the shade, with the adults’ telling stories or playing music, country troubadour style, into the late afternoon.
If the scene sounds picturesque, understand that my mother was never totally at ease and that there was always an undercurrent of tension. The farm, for her, was always more a source of frustration than pride.
Dinner was the focal point of the visit, and it was served family style, the table spread with plates of tomatoes, corn, and cornbread, bowls of cooked yellow squash, cooked greens, stewed okra, and peas. Purple hull peas were the bulk of what my grandparents grew, although they also had crowder peas and, just once each year, those tiny, delicate lady cream peas that have a short growing and harvest season.
Anyone outside of the South will surely read “peas” and think of bright green English peas. All who live around here know better. “Peas,” meaning field peas (or cow peas), are legumes that come in a wide and wonderful variety, grown only in the South. While dried black eyed peas, found on the shelves of grocery store chains, are certainly field peas, they are far from representative of the full category.
Field peas are tender, flavorful, and nutritious. They’re hardy and easy to grow in a hot climate, and the crop enriches the soil. They freeze exceptionally well, losing very little flavor and texture in the process. Despite what you may read if you search “field peas,” they need little embellishment other than salt – no pork, fat, onion, or okra. I’ll acknowledge that my mother’s influence might be at work here, as most recipes that are labeled “traditional” have at least a ham hock and often more than that.
When we packed into the car for the drive home from my grandparents’ farm, whether after a day trip or when my mother came to bring me home after a two-week stay, we would take with us the bounty of the season, whatever the season might be. The haul was a combination of fresh and prepared, something for now and more things for later: Fresh and canned tomatoes; fresh and frozen corn; and, best of all, fresh and frozen peas. If we timed things just right and visited my grandparents to celebrate all of the August and September birthdays, we got the special treats of lady peas for dinner and peach cobbler for dessert, and we’d pack both prized peas and peaches into the car to take home.
By request, we had lady peas for dinner near the night of my 18th birthday, right before I left for college that fall. My mother advised me not to tell a living soul of my love for field peas. “People who don’t know better think peas are just food for livestock,” she said, “and I wouldn’t want anyone to judge you in that way.” She was joking, of course, but also deadly serious. She was farm-raised but city-refined, and if she’d had to pick between the two her city persona would have won hands down. She wanted almost no one to know about her humble beginnings.
Had she lived just a little longer, my mother would might have been shocked to see the trendy world of farmers markets take shape in Memphis. She might have had a hard time believing that people would every eagerly (almost competitively) hand over five-dollar bills for heirloom tomatoes or Ziploc bags of zipper peas. Perhaps her badge of shame would have shined up nicely into a badge of honor, an affirmation of her truth after all.
Food | July 24, 2021
Mrs. Lockard, one of the farmers at the Cooper Young Farmers Market, grows peas (and tomatoes, and melons, and more) in Ripley, not too far from where my grandparents lived. Like my mother, Lockard grew up on a farm. Unlike my mother, she always dreamed of returning to the land and becoming a farmer herself. After retiring from years of teaching, she did just that. Last week she said the lady peas were 2-3 weeks out. But she has other varieties to fill the gap, and that’s what I’ll make this week. Curious to learn more and check out a couple of recipes? Here:
- Garlic Sausage and Field Peas (Food and Wine)
- Lady Peas, the Queen of All Summer Peas (Cooking Light)
- Purple Hull Peas and Mustard Greens in Smoky Potlikker (NYT Cooking)
Also making? Tomato sandwiches, at least one a day. I’ve started making them with a little twist: I grill the bread in a hot skillet, slicing the tomato directly onto the bread as it cooks. It feels more substantial, somehow, when it’s warm. Here, I’ll show you:
And then, of course, there are summer salads: fruit, cooked grain, cheese, nuts, and a light dressing, all tossed together with greens and perhaps some herbs. That’s it; that’s the recipe. Play with your food.