by Kaitlyn Goalen
photographs by Nick Pironio
For most Southern cooks, field peas are as familiar and enduring a staple as their summertime harvest-mates, tomatoes. This year, however, an heirloom varietal of pea, thought to have vanished, will be grown within Raleigh city limits. And it all started with a dead woman’s fridge.
Two years ago, Raleigh-based farmer Sean Barker traveled back to his native town in Mississippi to visit family. Amid catch-ups with relatives and reminiscing about old friends, Barker and his uncle struck up a conversation about Mama Hill, Barker’s grandmother who had passed away in 1999.
Mama Hill had been an A-class gardener and a Southern cook of the highest order. In fact, Barker credits her for giving him the “agricultural bug” that grew into his profession. As he and his uncle sat on the porch, Barker recalled some of the crops he ate from Mama Hill’s garden as a child: okra, oversize summer squash, and a particularly delicious calico field pea unlike any he’d had before or since.
Barker’s uncle paused. “You know,” he said, “when we were cleaning out the house after Mama Hill died, I moved her refrigerator to my house but never really went through it; I just plugged it into the wall in my garage and sort of forgot about it.”
It prompted an immediate visit to the matriarch’s fridge, and an amazing discovery inside: Sitting on a shelf was a grocery bag full of seeds Mama Hill had saved. There were rice peas and lady peas, and a third bag of peas with a scrap of paper tucked into it: In Mama Hill’s script it read: “polecat pea, 1984.”
To a farmer, this was the equivalent of winning the lottery. Here were the calico peas of Barker’s youth, forgotten until now. After his mother successfully grew a test crop last season, Barker decided to plant a plot of the heirloom at Raleigh City Farm, where he and his business partner, Corbett Marshall, grow produce under the name Kailyard Farm.
If all goes according to plan, Mama Hill’s polecat peas will likely be harvested this month, along with about 20 other varietals Barker planted this season. Kailyard Farm sells its produce, including field peas, at the Raleigh City Farmer’s Market (Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. at City Market).
Grab some, if you can, and rekindle your romance with one of the South’s shining summer stars.
Field Peas with Cornbread and Tomato Vinaigrette
When I asked Barker how Mama Hill cooked her peas, he told me that she had a few tricks, including adding just a touch of sugar. In an ode to that maneuver, this recipe pairs the peas with a barely sweet tomato vinaigrette and cornbread crumbles. Like panzanella, the classic Italian tomato-and-bread salad, this dish works best with day-old cornbread.
2 slices smoky bacon, cut into ½-inch thick pieces
½ cup diced onion
1 clove garlic, smashed
2 cups fresh field peas
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 beefsteak tomatoes, cored and sliced in half
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh minced tarragon
1 teaspoon fresh minced parsley
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces chevre, crumbled
4 cups cornbread, broken up into 2- to 3-inch pieces
In a saucepan over medium heat, add the bacon. Cook until it begins to brown a bit and release fat, about five minutes. Add the onion, garlic and field peas and stir to coat. Add water until the field peas are covered by an inch. Bring to a simmer and cook until the peas are tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Drain the peas, discarding the cooking liquid and the garlic clove. Transfer the peas to a bowl and season with salt to taste.
Over a large bowl, use a box grater to grate the flesh of the tomatoes (discard the tomato skin). Whisk in the vinegar, tarragon and parsley. Whisk in the oil in a slow steady stream until the mixture is fully emulsified. Add the field peas, corn bread and chevre, and toss to coat. Transfer to a platter and serve.