Florida Heritage Foods

Black-Eyed Peas

Common name

Black-eyed peas

Scientific Name

Vigna unguiculata

Other Common Names

Cowpea, southern pea or field pea (English), 眉豆 (méi dòu, Mandarin), imbumba (Zulu), pois à vache (French), dinawa (Setswana)

Black-eye peas originated in Northern Africa, and today they are a traditional Southern American crop that is also well-known as a key ingredient in African-American ‘Soul Food.’ It is a nutritious pea that is easy and inexpensive to grow in a small home garden because it does well in poor soils and hot-dry climates.

Historical Significance

Farm Workers Carrying Sacks of Peas(1930s)’ Hardaway, Florida. Florida Department of State Archives.http://fpc.dos.state.fl.us/general/n031473.jpg

Black-eye peas are native to northern Africa, and they have been consumed throughout Africa, India and the Mediterranean for thousands of years. The peas were brought to the Americas in the 18th century during European colonization and the enslavement of African people. 

They were introduced to Florida by enslaved Africans during the colonial period. They were grown to feed people as well as livestock. The peas were an important food source during the Civil War for soldiers and civilians in the South because they were a good source of protein that is inexpensive to produce. They remained a staple food after the war, particularly among the rural poor, and they were served in a variety of dishes such as ‘Hoppin’ John’ and usually alongside cornbread. 

Women canning black eye peas at a canning plant in Dania, Florida.(1937) U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Library of Congress
Migrant agricultural worker from Tennessee shelling Black Eye Peas for supper. Homestead, Florida. (1939) U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Library of Congress.
A migrant worker uses commercial 'Florida Peas' bag for curtains, Canal Point, Florida. (1939) U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information . Library of Congress
Migrant laborer from Arkansas picking beans. Homestead, Florida (1939). U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Library of Congress.

Cultural Significance

Easy to grow in abundance, black-eye peas quickly became a staple food in Southern cuisine, including many African-American dishes. Black-eye peas are mostly consumed as a slow-cooked side dish and in stews featuring pork, such as ‘Mississippi Caviar’ and ‘Hoppin’ John.’ Yet they are often prepared as the main meal for good luck on New Year’s Day. There are many oral histories retelling stories that black-eyed peas were eaten by enslaved populations on “Freedom’s Eve,” the night before the Emancipation Proclamation on December 31, 1862.
Young women shelling peas at the Daytona Industrial Institute (1912). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Cooking With Black-Eyed Peas

Black Eyed Peas Plant Card Photo
Black Eyed Peas Plant Card Photo

Growing Tips

Plant bush-type black-eyed peas directly into the garden after the last frost (April-September). Seeds are typically spaced two to three inches apart and one inch deep. Some fertilizer may be necessary, but the peas do well in poorer, sandy soils. Once established, the plants are drought-tolerant but may benefit from mulching. Avoid over-watering the plants, which may promote fungal growth on the leaves. Harvest months are July-November. Peas may be dried on the bush for seed-saving or culinary storage purposes. Peas prefer full sun (Iannotti). In addition to nitrogen-fixing green manure, cowpea plants can be used for livestock forage, either green or dried for future use (“Cow Peas”). To plan, a heritage garden, download the ‘Planning a Florida Heritage Garden (PDF).’

black eyed peas