Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Today's contributor, Virginia Willis, is the author of cookbooks "Bon Appétit, Y’all" and "Basic to Brilliant, Y’all." She is a contributing editor to Southern Living and a frequent contributor to Taste of the South. She also wrote Eatocracy's most-commented post of all time.
In this series for the Southern Foodways Alliance, I am examining iconic Southern foods that so completely belong to summer that if you haven’t relished them before Labor Day, you should consider yourself deprived of the entire season. My plan is to share a little history and a few recipes that I hope you will enjoy. This week, I’m spilling the beans - and the peas.
Though their origins are different, I’ve paired field peas and butter beans together for this post because they ripen at about the same time in an incredibly short season, and they are similar in their luscious texture and taste.
My family always planted a large garden near the house and often kept another plot in the black, fertile soil down by the river. Among the many, many vegetables my grandfather planted were black-eyed peas and butter beans. In the summer, we’d sit on the porch shelling the black-eyed peas that Dede had picked that morning. The purple hulls dyed our fingers a smoky violet. He’d also bring up bushel baskets of pale green butter beans, which were my favorite. I dearly love fresh peas, but without question, my absolute favorite summer vegetables are butter beans. Oh my. There is simply nothing like them.
Field peas are thought to be native to Africa and were brought to the United States in early Colonial times, during the slave trade. They spread throughout the Southeastern United States, where they were eaten as green-shelled peas or left to dry on the vine for later use. They became a staple food among poor residents, black and white alike, in the deep American South, as they are drought resistant and easily adaptable to varying types of soils. The colloquial terms “field peas” and “cowpeas” come from the farming practice in which the remnants of the plants from the pea harvest were left in the field for grazing cattle. The importance of field peas in Southern foodways cannot be overstated. They were eaten fresh in the summer and dried in the winter. According to the Clemson University Cooperative Extension, most varieties of Southern peas produce their own nitrogen in root nodules, making them good choices for soil-building summer crops.
Butter beans, on the other hand, are native to South America. There is a raging controversy over whether butter beans are the same as lima beans. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension states that lima beans and butter beans are interchangeable terms, and there is little difference in the varieties. I hate to besmirch the name of my alma mater, and the gardeners may think they have it all sorted out, but you can’t tell me - or many Southern cooks - that flat, tender, petite, green butter beans are the same as the larger, yellow, starchy lima pods. The difference is that some butter bean varieties are grown to harvest when young and immature and some are grown to harvest when older and more mature for drying.
The flavor of both of peas and butter beans when fresh is so completely different than the dried versions. And, while frozen are fine, I’ve yet to taste a commercially frozen field pea or butter bean that tastes as good as those put up at home. Every summer, Mama and I buy 15 or so pounds to blanch and freeze. We’ve gotten lazy and buy them already shelled. It’s a somewhat costly endeavor, but well worth it in the fall and winter months.
It appears as I progress through summer and my homage to iconic Southern summer foods that I am even more traditional than I thought. This week I am unapologetically sharing recipes for old-fashioned butter beans and cornbread. I could share a succotash or some sort of new-fangled Southern hummus, but I am not. I’ll leave that for my cookbooks and the magazine articles. What I am sharing is the way I really love to eat butter beans. Please consider this my love letter to summer.
Meme’s Old-Fashioned Butter Beans
Slowly simmered with a bit of fat for flavor, they produce a rich, soothing broth. We would often have them freshly shelled in the summer as part of the large Sunday dinner. My grandmother, Meme, would serve a simple slice of cornbread or leftover biscuits bathed in the salty broth for a light supper.
6 cups water, plus more if needed
Bring the water and fatback to a boil in a saucepan over high heat. Add the butter beans and season with salt and pepper. Decrease the heat to low and simmer until the beans are tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon into shallow bowls with a little of the rich broth and serve immediately.
Warming the skillet and butter, oil or bacon grease in the oven prepares the skillet for baking and melts the fat. Most often, I use oil, but butter is delicious. I like to let it get just barely nutty brown on the edges. The brown flecks give the cornbread extra color and flavor.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, canola oil or bacon grease
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place the butter in a 10 1/2-inch cast-iron skillet or ovenproof baking dish and heat in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the cornmeal, salt and baking soda. Set aside. In a large measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine.
Remove the heated skillet from the oven and pour the melted butter into the batter. Stir to combine, then pour the batter back into the hot skillet. Bake until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes.
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