REPOSTED with permission from Dr. David S Shields, Univ. of South Carolina.
Every part of the South has its favorite field peas. Virginia has its whippoorwill, Louisiana its Rouge et Noir, Mississippi its Silver Hull, Georgia its Brown Crowder, Tennessee its Pink Eye Purple Hull, Texas its Cream Pea, South Carolina its Sea Island Red and Rice Peas. A message from Italy has informed us that Slow Food has boarded Florida’s signature pea, the Conch Pea, on the global Ark of Taste, the register of the most historically resonant, flavorful and endangered foods in the world.
Lovers of traditional Floridian food know the conch pea well. It appears at a very few road side produce stands in July and August, sometimes into September. Fresh shelled they are sold in plastic freezer bags to devotees who sometimes travel thirty miles to a source.
“The Conch pea is a small white pea, very like what we call Lady peas. For the table they are delicate and tender—a very acceptable dish”. A cowpea, it was heat tolerant and drought resistant, making a crop when most other cowpea varieties failed. There were two forms: the vining conch, the original form of the pea, with its prolific running habit, and the bush conch, a more compact form of the plant developed by Crenshaw Brothers Seed Company of Tampa FL circa 1905 and first offered for sale in 1907. Both forms of the pea were boarded on the Ark of Taste.
Concerning the vining conch: “If planted ten feet apart it will meet up and cover the ground with a dense foliage, completely shading it.” [“Conch Pea,” Florida agriculturist (June 1, 1879).] “The vine is a very low creeper, likes close upon the soil and I suppose could not be cut with a mower on that account. At the joints it has a tendency to take fresh roots. The foliage is abundant, and I believe it will be the best of all peas to shade the land from our summer sun and furnish humus for enriching the land.” [“The Conch Pea,” Savannah morning news (March 15, 1885), 8.] The small white pale eyed pea form in six inch narrow green pods.
Rivaling the rice pea as the most delicate and refined tasting of the white “lady peas”, the conch pea has a creamy texture when cooked, a wholesome taste, and a pleasant flavor. In Florida where it emerged in the United States, it stands foremost for good flavor of peas and beans. For table use these peas are equal to the white bean; for winter use and green they will cook tender in half the time of other varieties,” [Isaac S. Coon, “The Conch Pea Again,” Southern Cultivator (May 1885),5.] Like the rice pea the immature pods of the conch pea could be picked and steamed like green beans.
One sign of the conch pea’s flavorfulness was the avidity with which livestock feasted on pea hay made of the dried vines, or the pea plants. Hogs were run onto the 2 feet thick mats of vines and pods to fatten them. But if one wished to use the peas as forage and as a culinary crop, one cut the vines to the roots in July. 1892 fields tests by the Delaware Agricultural Station indicated that vining conch peas produced 12.9 tons of green forage per acre, more that clay, black crowder, Stewart, and soy beans. [“Delaware State Report,” Experiment Station Record 5 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1895), 780].
All southern field peas and cowpeas hail from Africa—they descend from about a dozen landrace strains carried into the western hemisphere as part of the African diaspora. That said, cross breeding and seed selection gave rise to some distinct American varieties. The conch pea first appears in North American fields in the St. John’s River region of north Florida in the 1876, having come into the United States from the West Indies. [“Conch Pea Again,” Florida Agriculturist (Aug 13, 1870) 5.] (The name conch pea suggests its island origin.) Jacksonville was the first center of seed production with seed retailing for $4.00 a bushel in 1879.
Chris Smith of the Utopian Seed Project grew out bush Conch Peas as part of his comparative field trials of cowpeas and southern peas last year. It ranked first in flavor of the two dozen varieties sampled. This year he is growing the vining form, as is Melissa DeSa in Florida. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has some germ plasm. I believe the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has some as well.