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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Supper At My Grandmother's Table - butter beans and field peas


I do not recall a time when butter beans and field peas (heirloom speckled butter beans and dixie lee peas) were not a part of supper at my grandmother's table.  The dinner meal usually included two meats, three or four seasonal vegetables (greens, okra, squash, etc) in addition to beans and peas, rice or potatoes, fried corn bread or fried flour bread, tossed salad or a platter of fresh, raw seasonal vegetables including sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, banana or bell peppers and celery, two or three desserts which may include home made cakes, pies, puddings, cookies (usually tea cakes) or ice cream, jams, jellies, preserves or honey (from my great-grandfather's hives, which were by the swamp and produced honey as dark as molasses) to be spread biscuits still hot from the oven, a variety of pickled vegetables, chow chows or relishes, usually some sausage or country ham on a dish on the stove, left over from breakfast and some fried fatback, left over from seasoning vegetables.  Each person who entered her door (or even her yard) was invited to supper - friend, family or stranger.  Upon entering the house, she would begin her litany, describing the day's menu and at the end of the list of a dozen or so foods available for dinner, she would say "and there are beans and peas on the stove for whoever wants them."

All of my childhood friends who had the chance to eat supper with us were amazed.  They always said something along the lines of, "I can't believe y'all eat like this every day!" My grandmother would leave the pots and pans on the stove, with serving spoons in them and the overflow of dishes would cover the counter.  Everyone helped themselves, filling their plates with whatever they liked and going back for seconds and thirds.  Most of my friends did not reach for the beans and peas, but I would always encourage them to try a spoonful.  In each case, their response was of astonishment when they realized just how good the beans and peas tasted.  These were not the flavorless canned beans and frozen peas from the grocery store!  These were rich, savory, meaty and creamy - as good as the steak and fried chicken.  Even a friend who was so shy that he would not order for himself in a restaurant in his early teens, served himself extra helpings and learned to push them onto his spoon with a piece of fried cornbread and to sop it in the pot likker - something he had never done before.  The next day, I taught him to shoot a rifle and damn near made a good ole boy out of him!

When the beans and peas were in season, nearly every evening was spent shelling them.  We ate what we could fresh.  At least 100 pounds of each were blanched and frozen for use throughout the rest of the year.  My grandmother cooked three or four large pots of beans and peas each week.  They were always there.  Then, one day my grandmother was gone... and soon after, so were the beans and peas.

I had taken them for granted.  When I came to that realization, I began the search to replace them.  It was far more difficult than I thought.  Most of the farmers in the area had switched to growing crowders,  black eyed peas and other commercial varieties of lima beans instead of the old, heirloom varieties.  Even field peas that I bought directly from farmers, who swore that they were dixie lea peas turned out to be crowders.  Several years passed, before I was able to learn from my last remaining relative of my grandparents' generation, that "dixie lee" was the name of the the variety of field pea.  But, no one knew the name of the butter beans.  I knew that they were speckled butter beans, but they were not like the speckled butter beans in found in grocery stores and farmer's markets.  The butter beans from my childhood were light green when young, but white with deep purple speckles or spots when mature - no two mature beans had the same pattern.  When cooked, they turned a uniform light grey and produced a grey/brown potlikker.  I tried every variety of speckled butter or lima bean I could find.  I ordered from heirloom companies.  I communicated with the Southern Seed Legacy.  None of them were the right color or tasted right when cooked.

I am pleased to announce that I found a source for dixie lee peas a few years ago.  Just last month, I found a source for the speckled butter beans that I have been searching for for so long.  This week, I plan to blog about both.

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