The Short History of Black Eyed Peas - the Food

Fresh Black Eyed Peas
The black-eyed pea, also known as the cow pea, is thought to have originated in North Africa, where it has been eaten for centuries. It may have been introduced into India as long as 3,000 years ago, and was also a staple of Greek and Roman diets. The peas were probably introduced to the New World by Spanish explorers and African slaves, and have become a common food in the southern United States, where they are available dried, fresh, canned, and frozen. The flavorful peas are used to make soups, salads, fritters, and casseroles; they can also be pureed; or sprouted.

"It's hard to imagine a more perfect crop, particularly for Africa, where food production lags behind population growth, demand for livestock products is soaring, and climate change is bringing new stresses to already challenging growing conditions," said Christian Fatokun, a cowpea breeder at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), which is co-organizing the conference in collaboration with Institut Senegalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA), Dry Grain Pulses Collaborative Research Support Program, and Purdue University.

Scientists are not only studying the cowpea for its drought-tolerant traits, its high yields in dry environments and potential for enhanced food security in Africa, but also nutritional and health benefits for consumers domestically and beyond, according to scientists.

Previous research has shown that regular consumption of grain legumes is associated with reduced risk of chronic disease. However, there is limited data available on how the cowpea or cowpea components may impact human health.

"But fulfilling the promise of this marvelous legume requires intensive efforts to deal with threats that inhibit production and long-term storage," he added. "The good news in Senegal is that researchers will be revealing new and innovative approaches to dealing with the pests and weeds that attack cowpeas at every stage of their lifecycle and with the voracious weevils that devour dried cowpeas."

black eyed peas
Dry Black Eyed Peas
The cowpea, which is also known as the black-eyed pea, is one of the world's oldest crops. It is currently cultivated on 10 million hectares, mainly in Central and West Africa, but also in India, Australia, North America, and parts of Europe. It was brought to the Americas on slave ships and became a favorite of President George Washington, who was looking for a variety of peas - he called them "pease" - that could withstand the warm climates of the southern United States. Cowpeas are treasured for their high protein content (grains contain about 25 percent protein), leaves and stalks that serve as especially nutritious fodder for cows (hence the name cowpea) and other farm animals, and the fact that their roots provide nitrogen to depleted soils. For many in Africa, the crop is a critical source of food during the "lean period" - the end of the wet season when food can become extremely scarce in semi-arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa.

The many qualities of the cowpea are being discovered anew for a number of reasons. One is the potential of the cowpea's high protein content to help satisfy dietary requirements in food-challenged developing countries, particularly in Africa, where over 200 million people remain undernourished.

Cowpeas provide strong yields, even in hot and dry conditions, and scientists are developing ever more resilient varieties. And as climate change turns up the heat in sub-Saharan Africa, there is growing concern that production of current staples such as maize and rice will fall or even collapse in some areas, requiring so-called "climate-ready crops" like cowpeas to fill the void.

Black Eyed Pea Plants
One of the more popular ways of cooking black-eyed peas is the dish called "Hoppin' John", a traditional African-American dish served on New Year's day for good luck.

There are almost as many theories as to how Hoppin' John got its name as there are ways to cook the dish. One story attributes the name to the custom of inviting guests to eat with, "Hop in, John." Another suggestion is that it is derived from an old ritual on New Year's Day in which the children of the house hopped once around the table before eating the dish. Whatever its origin, it was definitely a staple for many in the early South, and remains an important dish today.

The following recipe is one from Eric V. Copage's book, "Kwanzaa, An African-American Celebration of Culture And Cooking." If you're up to the challenge, you might try adding the rice to the black-eyed pea mixture. If not, you might do as the cook suggests, "cheat" and cook the rice separately, then combine the two at serving time.

Hoppin' John