July 29th, 2013
04:30 PM ET
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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.

To a Southerner, “peas” means black-eyed, not English. Like butter beans, 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 gallery 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.

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
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 10 1/2-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 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.

Read more at the Southern Foodways Alliance's blog



soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Coach fitness

    I love Buttermilk Cornbread! I have a similar recipe that I use to make it. Great stuff I will try this one day.

    January 29, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Reply
  2. Sharon

    Thank you not only for the wonderful recipes but the memory of pulling black-eyes, green, and lima with my Great-Grandma in the humidity and bright sunshine of my southern childhood. I'd have sore fingers, red feet from the SC clay, and later that night, a satisfied belly full of beans and cornbread.

    July 31, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  3. bence

    beans were always a main staple around our home when I was growing up. Still are. Some people can cook um and some can't. All it takes is practice. Never did get tired of any kind of beans. Almost 69 years young and still like BEANS. Poor peoples beef steak. There is a art of boiling dried beans.

    July 31, 2013 at 7:20 am | Reply
  4. MusicCityMissy

    Virginia – thanks for setting the record straight on butter beans. The ones pictured look like what I was raised on along with the speckled or colored butter beans. Peas were generally purple hull, crowder peas were crowders, beans were string beans. All were eaten fresh or frozen and never dried. Limas were served at school and were one of the only foods I detested. They were big and sort of yellowish green. I have always described their texture as fuzzy or mushy. Only other thing missing is an occasional spoon of chow-chow on top of the beans. My favorite way to eat them was to split a wedge of cornbread and spoon the peas or butter beans over it and completely soak the cornbread with pot likker.

    July 30, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  5. fzkatt

    I commend your cornbread recipe. No sugar. No flour. Just the way it ought to be.

    July 30, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  6. Sarah

    In the recipe, sliced onion is listed in the ingredients, but not included in the directions. I know you add the onion with the butter beans, but I'm a southern raised cook. Others might not. ;)

    July 30, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  7. just me

    Oh man, the only thing that would make this better is slices of home grown tomatoes on the side.

    I have some dry beans at home. Now I just need to get some fatback ......

    July 30, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  8. derekbjenkins

    I remember eating a purplish grey variety of butterbean. Is memory failing or is there such a variety to be had?

    July 30, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply
    • MusicCityMissy

      derekbjenkins – those were always called speckled or colored butter beans where I grew up.

      July 30, 2013 at 10:51 pm | Reply
    • SusieC from TN

      Yes, there are purplish & green speckled butterbeans. I think they are a little larger than the butterbeans that the article speaks of. They are good too.

      July 31, 2013 at 12:42 am | Reply
  9. Rusty Shakleford

    The "butter beans" in your pictures look like lima beans. In my area of the South (SC), butter beans are the "larger, yellow, starchy" variety that most people despise.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  10. Betty

    I've never seen butter beans in a store in this part of the country – Pennsylvania. Wonder if they'd grow here.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Reply
    • SusieC from TN

      The Farmers Market people here tell me butterbeans are hard to grow but I don't know why. My father & father-in-law grew them. I think they need hot weather, but a gardener would have to tell you. Maybe fresh lima beans would taste as good. The frozen ones just don't have that appealing taste that the fresh ones do. Check your local county agent. Most of our local vendors here in SW Tennessee are Asian and they do a great job of growing southern veggies.

      July 31, 2013 at 12:46 am | Reply
  11. stonefruitcellar

    Reblogged this on Stonefruit Cellar.

    July 30, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  12. Rob

    Thanks for this recipe! We preserve butterbeans in a sweet & sour sauce in South Africa that is divine (explosive, but divine). Nice to try it in a 'fresh' dish like this.

    July 30, 2013 at 7:48 am | Reply
    • boylecmb

      Sound interesting. Would you share the recipe?

      July 30, 2013 at 9:19 am | Reply
  13. Jerv

    That's what I'm talking about, "Meme’s Old-Fashioned Butter Beans." I had this exact same dish as a young boy from a garden that I helped plant. Wow, brings back wonderful memories. Thanks for the great read.

    July 30, 2013 at 7:19 am | Reply

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