Virginia Willis Spills the Beans (and Peas)

Photos courtesy of Virginia Willis.
Photos courtesy of Virginia Willis.

Editor’s note: Last summer, Virginia Willis wrote a series of blog posts for us on the iconic summer foods of the south. The series was so tasty that we’ve decided to share some of the posts again. There’s still time to enjoy these ingredients before summer turns into fall.

by Virginia Willis

In this guest blog series for the SFA, I am examining iconic Southern foods that define summer. I’m also sharing a little history and a recipe or two that I hope you will enjoy. We kicked off the series with homemade ice cream. Next, I went crazy for corn, and then I made very clear my thoughts on the purity of a tomato sandwich. Coming up, we’ll feature peaches, squash, okra, and finish up right before Labor Day with a low-and-slow barbecued Boston butt. This week, I’m spilling the beans—and the peas.

Though their origins are different, I’ve paired field peas and butterbeans 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 butterbeans. 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 smoky violet. He’d also bring up bushel baskets of pale green butterbeans, which were my favorite. I dearly love fresh peas, but without question, my absolute favorite summer vegetables are butterbeans. Oh my. There is simply nothing like them.

Virginia Willis-butterbeans close-up

To a Southerner, “peas” means black-eyed, not English. Like butterbeans, field peas are legumes, but they differ from the round, green English peas that don’t do so well in the semi-tropical South. These high-protein staples come in a huge array of pod and seed color, size, shape, and flavor. Some of them grow on vines; others, on bushes. Small-sized pea and pod types are referred to as “lady peas.” Other common types are crowders, creams, black-eyes, pink-eyes, purple hulls, and silver skins. In the photo at the top of this post, I feature lady peas, crowder peas, and zipper peas. Lady peas are cream peas, small and delicate. Crowder peas are called such because they crowd the hull and become square-shaped from crowding. Zipper peas are aptly named because they are easy to shell.

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.

Butterbeans, on the other hand, are native to South America. There is a raging controversy over whether butterbeans are the same as lima beans. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension states that lima beans and butterbeans 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 butterbeans are the same as the larger, yellow, starchy lima pods. The difference is that some butterbean 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 butterbeans 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 butterbean 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 butterbeans 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 butterbeans. Please consider this my love letter to summer. Thanks so much for reading!

Bon Appétit Y’all!

Virginia Willis

Virginia Willis-Meme's Butterbeans

Meme’s Old-fashioned Butter Beans

Serves 4 to 6

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

1 ounce piece of fatback or 2 tablespoons canola oil

1 onion, preferably Vidalia, thinly sliced

4 cups freshly shelled butter beans (about 3 pounds unshelled)

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

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.


Buttermilk Cornbread

Makes one 101/2-inch skillet bread

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

2 cups white or yellow cornmeal (not cornmeal mix or self-rising cornmeal)

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups buttermilk

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place the butter in a 101/2-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.