“Among the many rich blessings especially given to the South, there are but few, if any, that stand out more prominently than the cow pea…” George Washington Carver
On Sunday, I had the great pleasure of assisting in an historic tasting of 20+ varieties of cowpeas at the beautifully preserved WIlliam C. Gatewood house on Legare St. When asked by my wife “What’s it for?” I didn’t have much of a good answer other than “because they’re there.”
But the Gatewood house, built in 1843, was the residence and workspace of Nat Fuller. As I arrived and dropped my gear, there was a palpable sense of history as it registered I was cooking in the same space of a great man, separated only by 154 years. I’ve always been curious as to the kinaesthetic need to touch old things, but I was no different. I knelt down to touch the sandy tiles that Nat would have stood upon. I walked up the winding side stairwell, the same stairwell Nat walked up every day. Nat’s presence was outright palpable – you could just feel him.
But along with Nat Fuller, George Washington Carver was there as well. I don’t suppose any kid growing up hasn’t heard the stories of the “Peanut Man from Tuskegee.” But George Washington Carver’s lifelong research extended well beyond just that of just peanuts. In 1904, he published a book on crowder peas, a book that, though long out of print and generally unavailable (even digitally- believe me I searched!) uses the same methods he applied to peanuts to that of the humble crowder pea. For a turn of the 20th Century South, whose fields had been ravaged by war, soil depletion, boll weevil infestation and widespread erosion, the crowder pea represented a path to redemption- they fix nitrogen in the soil and act as natural fertilizers.
In the upstairs kitchen (of the type that chefs’ dreams are made) I found Kevin Mitchell, BJ Dennis and Chad Carter all hard at work. Some media were there, filming Dr. Shields, BJ, Kevin and April McGreger, whose Farmer’s Daughter brand of pickles and preserves is turning heads these days for it’s focus on historical provenance.
I hadn’t really been invited, and it was really only through persistence and the good graces of David and Kevin that I was even there, so I tried not to be in the way, to keep my mouth shut, eyes open, taste everything and be helpful where I could. I busted suds. Some cooks hate washing dishes. I don’t. People tend to bother me less while I’m doing it.
To play a role, even a minor supporting one, was great. Great to have a seat at the table, to be involved in the discussion. Great to try so many varieties of different peas specific to the South. When asked by Hanna Raskin what I thought the value of such a tasting was, I responded by saying that in restaurants, where we’re limited by space and costs, we will usually bring in 10# of dried peas, or 8# bags of fresh or frozen peas. We’ll cook through them and then bring in something else. To see and taste such a profusion of them all at the same time was truly memorable and above all a humbling reminder of how blessed we all are to be part of such a community.