It’s time for Pink-eyed Peas! Pink-eyed Peas! Pink-eyed peas?
Who ever heard of pink-eyed peas? I hadn’t, before taking a trip to Alabama last month, and none of my Northern friends or family members has either. But down south locals are eating them with some smoky, salty pork goodness and, depending on who you talk to, some pepper relish on top and a slice of cornbread on the side.
A variety of cowpeas, this seasonal heat- and drought-tolerant legume, sometimes called “purple hull peas” for the color of its hull, is available fresh throughout much of the summer. My friend Sue, a Northerner whose been living the ’bama life for the last several years, and I discovered them at Birmingham’s Pepper Place Farmer’s Market, hulled and unhulled, and at the ninety-year-old Jefferson County Truck Grower’s Association Farmer’s Market (Birmingham Farmer’s Market, for short), a no-frills market located on the outskirts of town. Produce is sold directly from the back of pick-up trucks—no pretty tabletop merchandising typical of newer farmer’s markets today—with the best prices in town. There we saw a hulling machine making fast work of removing the pretty purple hulls.
Following the suggestions of the lady at the farmer’s market who sold us the peas, whose secret ingredient is a touch of honey, and those of Sue’s coworker, Anne Wailes, a native of Birmingham, we prepared these small tender legumes in a classic Southern style, adding our own personal touches of a smidgen of minced garlic and hot sauce. We were so excited to try the peas, I forgot to photograph them. Even though I can’t show you the cooked, creamy colored peas topped with a spoonful of beautiful pepper relish, I can tell you that prepared this way they are delicious, and compared to black-eyed peas, their flavor is more delicate.
How to Prepare Pink-Eyed Peas
Place diced bacon (or some ham hock, tasso ham, etc.) in a pot and cook slowly to render the fat. Add diced onion and cook over medium heat until translucent. (If the bacon you used isn’t sufficiently fatty, you may need to add a little oil when cooking the onion.) Add a touch of minced garlic, if desired, and cook until aromatic (be careful not to burn it), stirring frequently. Add the peas and cover with chicken broth. Add a spoonful of honey and, if desired, a few dashes of hot sauce. Let simmer over very low heat with the lid ajar until tender. Check periodically to make sure the peas remain covered with chicken broth, and add more if necessary. (It’s important that the peas gently simmer to allow them to cook but not bust their outer skins.) Check for doneness after about 20 minutes. When they are just tender, season to taste with salt and pepper, and simmer another few minutes, until done. They will be tender, yet retain a lovely firm texture—they will not be mushy in the least. Serve with pepper relish (recipe follows) and a slice of cornbread.
Catherine Wailes’ Pepper Relish
When Sue and I asked Anne how she prepares pink-eyed peas, she said that topping the cooked peas with a spoonful of pepper relish is a must. To make sure we had the full pink-eyed pea experience, she gave us a jar of her homemade relish, made from a dog-eared recipe handed down from her mother, Catherine. She recalls her mother making this relish almost every summer, working over a hot stove and without air-conditioning, Anne emphasized. This red and green relish adds a nice burst of color to the light-colored peas, and a contrasting sweet-and-sour flavor that perfectly sets off the smoky, meaty peas.
1 dozen green bell peppers
1 dozen red bell peppers
1 dozen medium-size onions
1 bunch celery
2 quarts white vinegar
3 pounds sugar
3 tablespoons canning and pickling salt (kosher salt can be substituted)
Using an old-fashioned, hand-operated tabletop meat grinder or a food processor, grind or finely chop the peppers, onions, and celery to a fairly small size, but not smaller than about ⅛-inch in diameter. (If you grind them too small, the peppers and celery will become mushy; you want to have some texture.) Place the vegetables in a large pot and pour boiling water over them, then drain.
Combine the vinegar and sugar in a large pot and place over medium heat, stirring occasionally. When the sugar is dissolved, add the drained vegetables and salt and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes and place in very hot, sterile jars. (Anne says the combination of the hot relish and hot jars will generate enough heat to create a seal.) The relish will easily keep for a year in a cool, dry place.
Note: Anne hasn’t used a food processor to make the relish, as she prefers the uniformity you get with a meat grinder. Another alternative to a meat grinder is to use a mixer attachment for a KitchenAid stand mixer, which allows you to grind vegetables similarly to a meat grinder.
Variation: Pink-Eyed Peas with Okra
Anne says the combination of pink-eyed peas with tender young okra, about 2 to 3 inches in length, is delicious, and a favorite of hers. To prepare the peas with okra, cook the broth down so it is at the level of the peas or just below. (You will probably want to remove the lid of your pan about mid-way through cooking.) When the peas are tender, lay whole, trimmed okras across the top of the peas and steam, covered, until the okra are tender.
Another regional specialty, even more regional that pink-eyed peas, though not season-dependent, is smoked chicken, pulled and dressed with “white barbecue sauce,” a mayonnaise-based sauce with a horseradish kick. An Alabamian barbecue specialty, this tradition got it start at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, but is available in other BBQ joints throughout the state. (The recipe for the sauce, invented by Bob Gibson, has not been held under lock and key, thus its spread throughout the state, and it is included among the recipes in Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book.)
I sampled it to-go in sandwich form (you can also buy the pulled meat, dressed, by the pound) from my friend Sue and her husband Adam’s favorite neighborhood barbecue establishment: Saw’s BBQ in Homewood, a town just outside Birmingham. (Locals, however, would say that technically Saw’s is in Edgewood, a distinct neighborhood, with its own main street and retail businesses.)
Adam and Sue love the ribs at Saw’s, so, chicken and white sauce aside, that was the main reason we went. The ribs are the best I’ve had: meltingly tender, smoky meat falling off the bone, yet not overcooked or dry, that’s slathered in a Saw’s barbecue sauce—a pefectly balanced vinegar-based sauce with the right touch of chile heat, sweetness, and acid (to cut the unctuous ribs). (Saw’s popular sauce, which took years to develop, is sold at their restaurant and at local stores.)
When we opened our carry-out containers at home, we realized we didn’t have the pulled chicken sandwich in white sauce. The Styrofoam container that we thought contained the sandwich held only the several slices of squared soft, white bread that come with every order of ribs. (Sue and Adam told me that locals use the slices of bread to hold either end of the rib while eating them, and then eat the meat juice and bbq sauce–sopped bread last.)
By the time Sue went back to pick up the missing sandwich, just 15 minutes later, Saw’s had become very busy, with a line out the door. Now that I’ve tried the goods, I can see why Saw’s is so popular.
So how was the smoked chicken sandwich with white barbecue sauce? I’m not one to dis a regional specialty, one that has loyal and passionate adherents. But would I crave it like I would Saw’s ribs with their own, specially developed barbecue sauce? Not ever. Yet it is a lovely sandwich. The meat was very moist and had great smoky flavor, and the sauce was nice and creamy, cooling, tangy, and a bit spicy. (Who doesn’t appreciate a horseradish sauce, after all?). If offered to me, I would never turn my nose up at it. If you’re Alabamian, and grew up eating it, I can see why it would have a special place in your heart. And if you’re not from Alabama, try it.
Before heading over to Alabama to visit Sue and Adam, I’d spent a few days at my family reunion in a house we rented on Lake Oconee in Georgia, situated midway between the towns of Madison and Greensboro. (We’re not from the area; we pick different places around the country for our reunions.)
Driving through Greensboro on a grocery run, I spotted Holcomb’s Bar-B-Q. Located in a converted gas station with great signage (there are a lot of great signs down south), I decided I had to go. I learned from a local in the market that it’s the best in the area, but is only open Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Luckily I wasn’t leaving Georgia for Alabama until Thursday afternoon.
The menu at Holcomb’s is the simplest I’ve seen at a barbecue restaurant, and it’s highly regional. There are three things on offer: barbecue, coleslaw, and Brunswick stew, a Georgia tradition that was, according to legend, invented in the town of Brunswick. If you count the two ways the meat is available, chopped or sliced, that’s four, plus there are pickles and their delicious homemade vinegar-based bbq sauce (that comes with a slight kick) at the table.
I love that the menu writers at Holcomb’s have assumed you know what “Bar-B-Q” means. I assumed it meant pork, which it does, except at Holcomb’s the part of the pig that is used is the fresh ham, not the butt (or shoulder), which is more typical, or alternatively the entire pig. (According to Buster Davis, III, of the Georgia Barbecue Association, the use of the fresh ham for barbecue isn’t familiar to him. So if you want to try this very special barbecued pork, which is leaner than most, Holcomb’s may be the only place to get it.)
The ham is smoked over hickory, and then chopped or sliced and lightly dressed with their bbq sauce. Their Brunswick stew consists of chicken, pork, corn, and tomatoes; it is, Sandra Holcomb (her father started the restaurant forty years ago) told me, a classic recipe.
Another interesting fact about Holcomb’s: It opens at 9:00 AM, and people do come in, Sandra tells me, for a breakfast of Brunswick stew and barbecue. There is no coffee, however, just ice tea, water, and soft drinks.
Holcomb’s Bar-B-Cue has two locations: the one I went to in Greensboro (phone: 706-453-2577), and the original in White Plains (phone: 706-467-2409). Their homemade barbecue sauce is available for sale at their restaurants.