Field Peas

You haven't lived until you’ve tried Zipper peas with ham hocks and bacon grease.

The middle of the night. I cannot sleep. I am lying awake, staring at my ceiling.

My wife is not snoring. It’s important that you understand this because women do not like to be told that they snore. It makes them very angry, and they will inflict physical pain upon those who accuse them of this vulgar thing. Which I am not doing. Nor would I ever do.

As a boy, whenever I couldn’t sleep I would think about food. Some kids counted sheep, some added prime numbers, or recited their ABCs. I counted casseroles.

Before drifting off, I would visualize a grassy meadow filled with little church ladies, all carrying casserole dishes, taking turns leaping over livestock fences while the sheep watched them at a distance. And I would count.

“One casserole, two casserole…” And so on.

If that didn’t work, I would move on to counting pound cakes. When pound cakes didn’t work, I would count field peas.

Which is the point I am at now.

I should probably stop here for anyone who doesn’t know about field peas. I meet a lot of people who hear “field peas” and think of English peas. Which are green pellets often served in sketchy buffet-style restaurants with glass sneeze-guards that do not protect anything from small children who are literally at nostril-level with the mashed potatoes.

Field peas are different. There are billions of varieties of field peas. I’ll name a few:

Crowder peas, Purple Hulls, Big Red Rippers, Whippoorwills, Stick Ups, Turkey Craws, Mama Slappers, Old Timers, Cow peas, Mississippi Silvers, Shanty peas, Iron Clays, Wash Days, Triple Ds, Sermonizers, Butt Kickers, Polecats, Pinkeyes, and Zipper peas.

You haven’t lived until you’ve tried Zipper peas with ham hocks and bacon grease.

Years ago, I visited a no-name cafe outside Atlanta. The menu featured only one meal. It was written on a chalkboard. Smoked pork, coleslaw, and Zipper peas.

My waitress was an older woman in a white apron.

She said, “Whatchoo wanna drink, baby?”

I said, “What do you have?”

“Tea or tap.”

“Both.”

“You want the special?”

“I do.”

“You want any cornbread?”

“Did you make it?”

“Every day. By scratch.”

“How are the peas?”

“Got okra and ham in them. They good.”

It was one of the best meals of my life. At the time, playing over the radio—I will never forget this—was classical music. It was strange music to hear while eating field peas. I would have expected gospel music, or perhaps Don Ho.

So I think about field peas a lot. I also think about creamed corn prepared the way my wife makes it. Which is the same way my father-in-law used to make it. Which was how his mother prepared it. Which was the same way Methuselah taught all his children to cook.

Creamed corn, when made properly, is eighty percent butter and twenty percent tennis elbow.

To make creamed corn the old-fashioned way, you must first own a medieval torture device commonly known as a “corn cutter,” or a “corn creamer,” or an “Arkansas Knuckle Buster.”

This apparatus works like a cheese grater, only it is more lethal, with a lot more rust on the blade.

It is customarily the husband’s duty to grate corn for the preparation of creamed corn. And it is hard work.

In my lifetime, I have scrubbed oil stains off driveways with wire brushes and rock salt until my hands bled. This is much more difficult. I have friends who pay hundreds of dollars for yearly gym memberships. All they need is a corn cutter.

But I don’t mind grating corn. I’d rather cut corn until the second coming of Elvis than eat canned corn. And the same goes for tubed biscuits from the supermarket.

There is something weird about biscuits from a tube. They leave a film on the roof of my mouth, similar to what you get when you eat Country Crock.

Needless to say, I hate Country Crock, too. I don’t know what’s in the stuff, or why anyone would buy it. But I will say this: They got the brand name right.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t like food so much. But you can’t help the way you’re made.

I remember when I was a boy, my mother used to host church get-togethers at our house. All the ladies would arrive early to arrange the buffet table. And I would volunteer to help.

You should have seen the casseroles, cakes, and platters. Each dish contained enough saturated fat to kill a Clydesdale.

And the field peas. Everyone always went for the peas first. You had to be quick, or the peas would disappear. Sometimes they were gone by the time you reached the dish.

But then, other times you were lucky. Not only would you find plenty of peas, but you would also get a hunk of pork.

When this happens, it is like winning a door prize from above. It is one of those little moments that often go unnoticed. But when you string a million moments like this together, they make life beautiful.

If you ask me, good food is evidence that no matter what things look like, and no matter what people say, life is good. At least that is what I believe.

I’m getting sleepy now. I think I’ll go to bed.

Remember. My wife does not snore.

37 comments

  1. Larry Kirkland Jr - August 11, 2019 7:49 am

    More than distance, geography or ideology, Southerners are separated from our Northern brothers and sisters as we are the rest of the world by our peas, butter beans, okra and yes, creamed corn. We are separated by our food – food which is still today often planted and grown, watered and hoed free of grass by the very hands that will cook it to perfection.

    Whether you do it the first Sunday of the month or the last, whether for Founders Day or the Kirkland family reunion, five of the most beautiful words spoken in the Southern dialect are, “We’re eatin at the church.” Even now I imagine the next time we’ll do it and almost like a child’s wonder on Christmas morning, I too wonder what I’ll get. I’m 54 years old and I don’t know when I’ve ever agreed with, or enjoyed reading, an article any more as I did this one. And it was about peas. Or was it about so much more?

    Reply
  2. Jennifer Faircloth - August 11, 2019 10:24 am

    String a million little, unnoticed moments together….life is beautiful. Thank you for this reminder! And, for remembering every scraped knuckle on that ole corn cutter—worth it!

    Reply
  3. Janie F. - August 11, 2019 10:41 am

    For a writer to truly know what being southern means is priceless to me Sean. This post proves you are a born and bred child of the south. Love me some field peas! My granny made the best greens, both collards and turnips. My mother made biscuits her grown brothers fought over and they did not come from tubes. I, unfortunately did not inherit their cooking genes. My mother in law, at one time, made carrot cake to take for dinner on the ground or family reunions that would literally disappear before the food was eaten. People would grab a piece and hide it under a napkin till time to eat dessert. This was so people wouldn’t think you were greedy. Those were the days!

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  4. Jean - August 11, 2019 10:43 am

    You had me at purple hull peas and cornbread!

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  5. Elizabeth - August 11, 2019 11:26 am

    Now I’m hungry!

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  6. Barbara Pope - August 11, 2019 12:14 pm

    Hard as heck to find good vegtables any place except home anymore!

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  7. Marilyn - August 11, 2019 12:29 pm

    Once again you got me started on a pleasant note this morning. Not being from the south, I am not familiar with field peas or your style of creamed corn, but it all sounds good – even before breakfast! Since I didn’t inherit the “good cook” gene, canned corn was a staple, as were tube biscuits. But both my sons are excellent cooks!

    Hope you got some good sleep, and Jamie kept on not snoring. Lol

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  8. Sandra - August 11, 2019 12:36 pm

    Give me home grown vegetables and corn bread any day. Home made biscuits , country ham, and red eye gravy for breakfast. Southern country all the way.

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  9. Diane - August 11, 2019 12:59 pm

    You had a tool for the corn and the men cut the kernels? We Tennessee women have surely been hoodwinked! My grandmother taught me to use a little bitty paring knife. The first pass cuts off exactly 1/4 of the kernel. Any deeper than that earned a prompt dismissal of the guilty. The additional 4 passes are scraping the cob to get all the “cream”. Two one way, flip the cob and two the other. Finishing with wiping splatters off eye glasses, windows and walls.

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  10. That's jack - August 11, 2019 1:14 pm

    I did not know creamed corn was shredded, now I know why last week mine was not like mamas. I made one deep cut with the butcher knife. So now I know if I ever have extra corn on the cob to cook.
    BTW since I am totally deaf my wife doesn’t snore either, we are lucky!
    Sherry and jack (She will be by later)

    Reply
  11. Amanda - August 11, 2019 1:18 pm

    Follow up with the “tool” for shelling peas LOL. Loved the illustration! Or follow up with further descriptions of corn: ambrosia, peaches and cream, silver queen, incredible, and this year’s new hybrid, obsession. Diane definitely knows how to cut it. The best knife is about 5 or 6 inches, is serrated, and is exquisitely thin. It’s the one I also use for slicing tomatoes as thinly as possible. I have never heard of anyone counting casseroles and you are the only person who could tie together a column with the facts that your wife doesn’t snore, but you have trouble sleeping sometimes, and you are enchanted with fresh produce. As always, your column is a work of beauty.

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  12. Anne P. - August 11, 2019 2:09 pm

    I agree this column is a good thing of beauty!

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  13. Betsy - August 11, 2019 3:09 pm

    Of course your wife doesn’t snore! Neither do I and don’t you forget it!!!😳

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  14. Linda Moon - August 11, 2019 4:10 pm

    I ate and enjoyed field peas yesterday….one of those many varieties. Are we all really stupid enough to not know that weird brand names for butter, tubed biscuits, and canned corn are dead give-aways for what’s inside those tubs and tubes and cans? Stringing millions of unnoticed moments is like stringing pearls; they are ALL very valuable!

    Reply
  15. Steve L - August 11, 2019 4:18 pm

    Homemade biscuits, homemade strawberry preserves and a big slab of real butter is better than anything served at a high-dollar French Cafe’. Just saying. I’ve had both, and it a’nt even close.

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  16. Al-San Ferderber - August 11, 2019 4:29 pm

    Sean, this column was so great and funny. I had to take it to the kitchen to read it to my husband (his lunch time). He does not speak Southern. It is just a fact of his life. The poor guy was born in Quebec! Occasionally I will read something to him it if strikes me as wonderful or very amusing. He liked all of it but has never heard of field peas and especially all the varieties. He was greatly amused about the not snoring wife. I can not possibly think of why that would be funny to most men! Thanks for the moments of joy and laughter you send out! Al-San

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  17. Caleb Halstead - August 11, 2019 5:31 pm

    Love the column! A forgivable omission from you list is “White Ladyfinger Peas” or some derivation thereof. Best grown in southeastern Alabama in the Wiregrass area (also known as LA — or Lower Alabama). They’re a small white pea, easy to shell and when cooked with the right amount of ham hock or bacon drippings produce a clear broth. Nectar of the Gods does no justice…. Both of our adult children call them “Granny peas” as they learned of the delicacy at my mother’s dinner table in Headland, AL. Annually my daughter and I may a pilgrimage from Birmingham to LA to buy five or six bushels of shelled “Granny peas” to bring home, blanch, freeze and have available year ’round. Some turnip greens, fried pork chops, fried cornbread, with fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers on the side produce a movable feast!
    Incidentally, we refer to English peas as “Chinaberries,” and view them as barely fit for human consumption.

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  18. throughmyeyesusa - August 11, 2019 5:38 pm

    I don’t snore. I have severe sleep apnea….but have never snored. During my sleep study, the sleep specialist THOUGHT he detected, “eight episodes of light snoring”.
    My husband (wisely) swears that he has never heard any such thing.

    While we’re on the subject:
    My husband snores when he’s overly tired, mostly on his back or on his side (facing me, of course). Asking him to roll over generally stops the snoring, but I’ve always found the sound rather comforting, even pleasant. (I know some men snore loudly enough to bring down the rafters, and I’m not talking about them.) But of women who complain about the sound of a husband snoring, I ask, “Wouldn’t you miss that reassuring sound were it suddenly gone forever?”

    Wonderful column, Sean; so many different avenues for the reader to follow!

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  19. Rebecca Lee - August 11, 2019 5:47 pm

    So agree with Caleb Halstead! Little white peas aka ladyfingers are the best! Originally a Wiregrass girl who is pnow living in East Central FL.

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  20. Rebecca Lee - August 11, 2019 5:48 pm

    *now

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  21. Ginger Smith - August 11, 2019 5:55 pm

    Oh, so much to say! Yes, peas were a big part of my youth and are still…. I remember shelling bushels of peas and butterbeans in the den, while watching one of the three TV channels. I still do shell peas, when I can find them, crowders for their deep and meaty flavor. Mom liked the cream-type peas for taste and easy shelling. But WHERE do you find a big variety of types!?! You are lucky to find two or three varieties at all, nowadays. Gone are finding all sorts of peas…. and my granddaddy’s peas were the only ones we actually called field peas… nutty and rich. Folks, we need a bunch of varieties to eat and keep the food history alive! My grandparents lived in Conecuh County, AL. The best plate of food in the world will be found at the family reunion in Flomaton, AL every July.

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  22. Holley Calmes - August 11, 2019 6:17 pm

    I’m a city girl who was blessed with a farmer’s son for a granddaddy. He was one of 14 children whose mama got up at 4 a.m. to bake 100 biscuits before dawn.I ate cornbread cooked in an iron skillet every single night of my young life. I learned to love butter beans and every kind of pea there is. My favorites are white acres, BTW….with tons of vinegar and pepper on them. Now I live in blessed North Georgia, where we actually have local farmers and markets that sell homegrown Cherokee Purple tomatoes. Thank you Sean. I’m starving!

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  23. GaryD - August 11, 2019 6:27 pm

    Nothing better than field pea juice poured over cornbread!

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  24. lisa murray trainer - August 11, 2019 7:03 pm

    I put up a bushel of corn and peaches this week. My knuckles have the scrapes to prove it! I currently live in the arm pit of the US aka, albuquerque. I’ve been searching 6 ways to Sunday for any type of field pea…blackeyed, purple hull, cream or zipper. Beans. I can only find beans! Please someone, bring me some peas!!!

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  25. Mike Walker - August 11, 2019 7:16 pm

    Our family get togethers in middle Georgia were to me spiritual! My grandma made fried chicken that literally made the hair on my arms stand up just smelling it cooking. My mother made collard greens that were spectacular with the bits of ‘ streak-o-lean (salt pork) laced through. Aunt Addy fried the corn bread (plain and cracklin). If you have never eaten cracklin bread, add it to your bucket list!! Field peas were the forte of my aunt Aleen. I’m fairly sure that angels made them and she merely put them in the serving dish! These you got first so as to insure you GOT SOME! I would give my right arm for a bowl of those now (with maybe a side of stewed okra and tomatoes).

    Reply
    • Beverly Littlevfield - August 12, 2019 4:31 am

      Mike Walker, you must be my cousin in Indiana. If not, then we both had a great aunt Addy and my mom’s name was Allene. Assuming this is the case, it is true that we ate well. I miss our folks and those times together. (And Kathy said she shared the essay with her brother, Mike, so, naturally, I just concluded…)anyway, here’s to field peas, and don’t forget the butterbeans, okra and buttermilk biscuits! Cousin Beverly Rheney Littlefield

      Reply
  26. Mary Woodward - August 11, 2019 7:36 pm

    This column, what delight! Took me back to my grandmother-in-law’s country kitchen in Mississippi, where I learned southern cooking. My mother, a very good cook, was from Kansas and opening a can of creamed
    corn or ‘English” peas was the norm.

    Reply
  27. Mary T. - August 11, 2019 9:16 pm

    I was raised “in the Army.” Being overseas six of my growing up years, we ate a lot of canned vegetables. Thankfully I ended up in L.A. and married a local born and raised Southerner. That was 55 years ago. My wonderful mother-in-law was a true Southern cook. I learned a lot from her. I miss her and my father-in-law (who was one of the smartest men, even though he didn’t have much formal education) very much. I still try to cook like her but I’ll never be that good.

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  28. Patricia Gibson - August 11, 2019 9:21 pm

    Love this! So true. Great memories of church socials and food!

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  29. Tommy C - August 12, 2019 2:19 am

    As good as lean beef & venison are, I’ve always said give me a garden and a milk 🐮 &I’m happy. My bride discovered small cans of field peas @ one of the bargain stores she frequents. They’re about the size of BBs, she just heats them up after adding water. Scrumptious! Taste just like purple hulls or crowders. A plate of these with some homemade cornbread and browned skillet fried spuds & ice cold skim milk; then pour the pea soup over cornbread; I have always felt sorry for royalty. They have no concept of what luxury is.

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  30. Janet Mary Lee - August 12, 2019 2:40 am

    One of the things I loved about moving around the U.S. and overseas was sampling everyone’s food in different regions! I have been in the South about 25 to 30 years and all the Southern cooking is some of the best!! Do not disparage the poor green peas though!! Also can not beat them if done right with creamy buttery mashed potatoes on a fork full even though it is a Northern and Midwestern thing!! I wish I could find more varieties too of all these Southern peas!! Dang I am hungry now..Sean!! Southern peas and cornbread on the list for supper tomorrow!! Great post!!!

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  31. Martha Gaston - August 12, 2019 3:33 pm

    Only a person raised in the south could have written this.
    Please add black eyed peas to your list. Was my late husband’s favorite

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  32. Jones - August 12, 2019 3:54 pm

    Another excellent writing! Keep up the good work!!

    Reply
  33. Shelton A. - August 12, 2019 4:08 pm

    My dad and his dad grew Crowder peas. Love them! I liked fresh corn on the cob with a lot of butter. I shucked many an ear of corn. My dog snores but I don’t tell her or wake her up to stop the snoring. I like my fingers where they are. Great column-getting a chunk of ham with your peas is a blessing.

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  34. grammynell - August 12, 2019 4:41 pm

    How do I love you? Let me count the ways, you love good southern food, you love your wife beyond your last breath, dogs are your favorite people, and you have an old soul. And your blogs make me happy!

    Reply
  35. Susan - August 13, 2019 2:11 pm

    You have once again, made my day!
    Thank you, for sharing your gift.

    Reply
  36. Beth Smith - August 15, 2019 2:04 pm

    My mama has been gone for almost 19 years and to this day I still remember the taste of her field peas and creamed corn. No one else can match the taste, not even me. Thank you for always bringing back sweet childhood memories! And yes, a corn cutter should be classified as a lethal weapon!

    Reply

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