A Food Source and So Much More

While the black-eyed pea, or cowpea, has a global history stretching back millennia, its social and cultural significance has changed over time. A staple crop in Africa, revered by some peoples as a symbol of luck and fertility worthy of offering to the deities, within Europe it was considered solely as a humble food for laborers. In the Americas, too, the bean was a marker of class and culture, as it was mainly an important food source for enslaved peoples. Modern-day cuisine the world over embraces the black-eyed pea as a food rich in culture and history as well as a delicious source of innovative dishes that celebrate new traditions. The black-eyed pea is a powerful reminder of just how intertwined human identity is with the plants we eat.


Growth, Domestication, and Mobility

Black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata) are leguminous plants that grow best in semi-arid conditions but can thrive in poor soils with little help. They are heat-loving and drought-tolerant, and grow quickly, often giving a harvest of beans within 100 days. The ease of growth and usefulness of this crop contributed to its spread from West and East Africa to Egypt by circa 2500 BCE and to the Mediterranean and the Indian subcontinent by 1500 BCE. Archaeological and genetic evidence show that West Africans domesticated wild relatives of the plant at least 6,000 years ago.1 Because of their quick maturing and reliability, black-eyed peas are an important part of mixed food systems: wild gathering, hunting, fishing, and aquaculture, keeping small livestock, and/or building larger herds, agroforestry, and crop cultivation. Diverse specializations protect the community by relying on different foods at different times of the year and ensuring no single crop failure will cause a famine.2


Cultural Perceptions in Europe

Since classical antiquity, the black-eyed pea has been a cultural marker of those who lacked social status in European societies. A stigma surrounding dried foods impinged the reputation of the bean and its eaters: while wealthy and socially powerful individuals could afford fresh foods, peasants relied upon cheaper dried foods. The beans were shelled, dried, and used in humble soups, though in its fresh green form the black-eyed pea apparently made a delicious dessert served in Sparta.3 The imbrication of class, culture, and food is apparent, for example, in ancient Greek and Roman floor mosaics that depict food scraps strewn across a floor after a lavish banquet. In perhaps the most famous example of the unswept floor genre, seen here, lobster shells, olive pits, partially eaten fish, and nuts litter the ground, but nary a bean is to be found.


Authors of the ancient world have described black-eyed peas in accounts of plants and nature. The Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 CE) wrote that priests should avoid eating the food for fear its rough nature would upset their delicate constitutions. He also notes that Pythagoras (c.570–c.495 BCE) and his followers did not eat black-eyed peas because they “believed the souls of the dead to be contained within” the dried beans.4 This belief may have been informed by some cultural groups in Africa that understood the black eye of the pea as the watchful presence of a supreme deity.5 Such accounts, together with later botanical texts expressing ever-changing ideas of the bean’s origins and classification, demonstrate a long confusion regarding the plant’s common and Latin names in Europe.6 They also provide a wealth of information about the cultural and social role played by the bean in the European context.


Records of black-eyed pea consumption and use within Europe during the Middle Ages are relatively scarce. Understood as a food for peasants and livestock, black-eyed peas would have been considered subject matter too lowly for inclusion in the annals of history. Throughout the early modern period, the dried bean continued to be associated with persons of low social standing. But by the late sixteenth century, the bean seemed at least worthy of representation. In the Italian artist Annibale Carracci’s (1560–1609) painting The Bean Eater, from circa 1590, the artist’s brush strokes depict a man and his bowl of black-eyed peas, visually articulating their mutual low standing. Even though the beans had been a vital part of the Mediterranean diet and culture for centuries, they are here presented as both marginal and familiar.


In contrast, many more artists took inspiration from the green pea—be it the leaves, delicate blossoms, or sinuous tendril-filled vines—which became an emblem for love, fertility, and even lust. Verdant green peas were considered domestic to Europe, and served the elite not only for food, but for decorating their homes and gardens.


Peas and Beans in Early Modern Texts and Images

Visual representations of black-eyed peas and other varieties of beans and peas shaped European understanding of the plant. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the dramatic rise in the production and circulation of printed texts with images, such as herbals and natural histories, reinforced the codification of plants based on their geographic origins. Unprecedented global travel also formed European ideas about the ways in which close observation of the natural world could reveal the domestic or foreign origins of a person, plant, or animal. One result of this was a shift in European attitudes toward the black-eyed pea.


Despite the millennia-old European presence of the black-eyed pea, it was now understood in Europe as an itinerant body within a Eurocentric taxonomy of plants. European explorers visiting Africa, Asia, and the Americas reinforced this idea. Their observations, often reported in books, were soon taken throughout Europe as factual. For example, Dutch trader and explorer Pieter de Marees’ 1602 book about West Africa includes an illustration of the black-eyed pea in an idealized landscape alongside people and other plants.7


The European perspective is not the only early modern view we have on the black-eyed pea. Written records of the bean appear in the sixteenth century in China, where it is noted in the Ming Dynasty Compendium of Materia Medica as being a cure for flatulence and for kidney problems.8 And a beautiful illustration of the “cowpea” featured in the 30-volume Japanese agricultural encyclopaedia Seikei Zuetsu, published in 1804, shows how far the black-eyed pea had spread and how its usefulness had been welcomed into many agricultural traditions.


Food, Culture, and Colonialism

The black-eyed pea, millet, yams, and many other staple foods of the American tropics have African origins. European traders on the coast of West Africa filled hundreds of thousands of vessels with 10 to 12 million captives over the centuries of the transatlantic slave trade.9 These vessels carried humans-as-commodities as well as the foodstuffs needed for an average voyage of 60 to 80 days.10 Dry legumes, like black-eyed peas, hyacinth beans, and bambara groundnuts, were staple foods cooked into gruel during the Middle Passage. Leftover stocks then accompanied captives as they were dispersed throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.11 In Jamaica around 1687, the English physician, naturalist, and planter Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) recorded the presence of the black-eyed pea and extracted a plant to create this herbarium specimen.12


In the southern United States, enslaved peoples cultivated black-eyed peas as a crop largely for livestock.13 However, it was also a food served to them as well as a fixture in their kitchen gardens. Numerous firsthand accounts of enslaved peoples refer to black-eyed peas. In his 1837 memoir, Charles Ball (1780–unknown) recalls, “We had plenty of bread, and a supply of black-eyed peas, gathered from our garden, some of which [were] boiled in our kettle.”14 Francis Fedric wrote of the bean, “The dinner [of enslaved persons] consists generally of black-eyed peas soup, as it is called. About a quart of peas is boiled in a large pan, and a small piece of meat, just to flavour the soup, is put into the pan. The next day it would be bean soup…served out to the men and women in bowls; but the children feed like pigs out of troughs.”15 Black-eyed peas also held special cultural significance to enslaved Africans, serving for many as a marker of auspicious occasions, luck, and fertility.


Thomas Jefferson (1743−1826) and George Washington (1732−1799) both had black-eyed peas planted on their expansive plantations, Monticello and Mount Vernon, respectively. Washington corresponded with friends and acquaintances about the plant in a 1787 letter, in which he writes, “small, and round black eyed Pease called the Gentlemans Pea.”16 Jefferson considered the cultivation of black-eyed peas a pursuit worthy of a gentleman, harkening back to European traditions that placed greater social and cultural status on green peas. He held yearly pea growing contests, with the first man to produce a fresh pea required to host a dinner for other gentlemen in the area.


During the Civil War, because the North associated black-eyed peas with the practice of slavery, they were considered undesirable. However, they remained an important food in the South, so much so that some tired of their ubiquity. In Adelaide Stuart Dimitry’s memoirs of the war years (she became the historian of the Stonewall Jackson Chapter of the New Orleans United Daughters of the Confederacy), she notes that while food was often hard to come by, the black-eyed pea remained a reliable—to the point of tiresome—meal. She recalls: “Once at home came the dinner-where it came from was the daily surprise of life. Sometimes it consisted only of a large platter of newly-dug goobers or peanuts, boiled in salt water, but always sauced with a wondrous appetite—in that dour time never lacking in Richmond… But oh, the eternal, dried, black-eyed pea whether in porridge or soup, baked or boiled, ever the same villainous comestible that made one weary of going to the table!”17


In the late nineteenth century, American subsistence farmers were encouraged to grow the black-eyed pea even if their local climate meant they did not get an abundant crop. Its usefulness as a soil improver, for erosion control, and as a nutritious fodder for livestock made that this easy-to-grow crop a valuable addition to the farming landscape. George Washington Carver (c.1864–1943), the noted American scientist and innovative proponent of crop rotation, urged farmers in the American South to plant black-eyed peas to help replenish soil depleted by cotton farming. He also believed that this easily grown crop could help lift formerly enslaved peoples out of systemically reinforced poverty. He wrote of the plant: “The cow pea is rightfully looked upon by many as the poor man’s bank or mortgage-lifter… It is a matter of much regret that every colored farmer in Macon County does not plant at least three acres in peas.”18


British Colonial Botany

The black-eyed pea’s global journey is well documented in the Economic Botany Collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Although the plant was not grown as a crop in Britain (it usually being far too cold and wet), Kew’s holdings demonstrate that it was widely collected and studied in the nineteenth century as a useful plant from across the colonial world. The samples were collected from Niger (seed), India (seed), China (seeds), and Japan (food). They were also obtained from imperial exhibitions where plant products were displayed, as well as from colonial expeditions, including that of Scottish explorer and naturalist Dr. William Balfour Baikie’s (1825–1864) Niger Expedition of 1859.


Culinary History and Cultural Celebrations

Today, black-eyed peas are grown commercially in at least 33 countries, reflecting the widespread embrace of the bean among geographically disparate peoples, places, and cultures.19 As acclaimed food historian and chef Michael W. Twitty points out: “Very few people in the modern West eat one cuisine or live within one culinary construct,” but rather enjoy a multiplicity of culinary histories.20 Twitty coined the term “identity cooking” to characterize “how we construct complex identities and then express them through how we eat,” an idea that is useful for any discussion of food as widely used across culinary traditions as black-eyed peas.21


Black-eyed peas are a staple of the Southern American diet and an iconic component of African American culinary history. The beans are key ingredients for everything from stews to salads to savory bean and rice dishes, but perhaps they are most known for their association with New Year’s celebrations. Hoppin’ John, a popular rice, bean, and pork dish that is thought to bring good luck and prosperity, is an absolute must for any modern Southerner on New Year’s Day. It is often served with greens to symbolize wealth.22 Thiebou niebe, a classic Senegalese dish of black-eyed peas, rice, and ham, may be the basis for the recipe.23


Hoppin’ John’s origins are from brutal conditions of American plantations. Enslaved workers grew black-eyed peas and other African crops in their subsistence gardens outside the long hours they were forced to labor in their enslaver’s fields. Additionally, enslaved women often had to cook for the planter’s family as well as their own. As a result, they created new meals from West African recipes and the crops and foods they had access to. White southerners at first saw black-eyed peas as a lowly food meant to feed livestock and the enslaved. To them, the beans fit in alongside the pork scraps used to cook Hoppin’ John.24 However, by the latter half of the nineteenth century, white women began including these recipes in their homemaker cookbooks, often without crediting the women who pioneered them.25


Brazil’s national dish, feijoada completa, has a similar origin story to Hoppin’ John. Enslaved West Africans on plantations in colonial Brazil developed feijoada, a stew made with black beans and scrap pork.26 It was a meal of necessity for workers as it used the food on hand and could be left simmering unattended during the long day’s work.27 Today, simple bean and rice dishes are a national staple, but feijoada completa is a celebratory meal for every sector of society, taking days to prepare and requiring higher quality meat, collard greens, rice, orange slices, and manioc flour (derived from cassava).28 For both feijoada completa and Hoppin’ John, what was originally a means for survival has become a meal symbolizing prosperity and for celebration, as well as a symbol of unity across racial lines. However, there is still much tension in questions of representation, ownership, class, race and identity in Southern food and Soul Food, with white perspectives usually being unjustly privileged over Black ones.29


Climate Change, Breeding, and Resilience

Today, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that around 7 million tons of black-eyed peas are produced annually worldwide.30 The centers of production are still in Africa, the plant’s ancestral home, with Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Tanzania being among the world’s top producers, accounting for 80 percent of the world’s black-eyed pea crop.31 It is estimated that it is grown on more than 12 million hectares in many different countries, where it is often intercropped with grains such as sorghum and millet or rice.32 Black-eyed peas are the third most important pulse worldwide—a crucial component of sustainable agriculture and source of food for hundreds of millions of people.


Agriculture is having to adapt to our changing climate, both in terms of practices and what crops can be grown where. Even though black-eyed peas are considered very hardy, the crop may struggle as temperatures rise and rains become more erratic. Crop breeding is one way to make commercial black-eyed peas more resilient, while perhaps also making them more digestible and nutritious. Hardy wild relatives of the black-eyed pea may hold genes or genetic traits that will allow the crop to survive hotter, drier conditions, and perhaps be more pest-resistant.33 If these traits can be bred into commercial varieties then the black-eyed pea may hold one of the answers to ensuring food security throughout the world.


The Crop Wild Relatives Project is researching 11 primary relatives of the black-eyed pea in partnership with 33 countries and global seed banks, including the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Royal Botanic Garden, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank.34 Southern and western Africa are hotspots for wild black-eyed pea genetic variation. The importance of such relatives demonstrates how vital it is to protect wild plants and wild habitats. In a telling quote from Ousame Boukar, a Nigerian cowpea breeder: “The cowpea has nourished people for many centuries, but now it needs a hand to ensure it can continue to be an unfailing friend even while the climate crisis is affecting production.” Programs like the Crop Wild Relatives Project bring us full circle, back to the wild plants of Africa and the adoption of the ancient practices of growing, seed collecting, and crop breeding.


A Food of the Future

Black-eyed pea’s many names reflect its worldwide appeal. It is known as crowder pea, caupi, southern pea, alubia carilla, neibe, and frijole, as well as chowlee in India, gubgub in the West Indies, and akkerboon in South Africa.35 And black-eyed peas and other legumes are globally growing in status as key cooking ingredients and foods of the future. Highly nutritious and relatively easy to grow, black-eyed peas will no doubt play an important part in future food security: providing food in changing climates and helping small-scale farmers combat poverty and hunger.36 As the climate becomes warmer and more unpredictable, and as human populations grow and resources become more limited, crops such as black-eyed peas, with its many virtues, will contribute to the diets of more people.37



  1. A. C. D’Andrea et al., “Early Domesticated Cowpea (Vigna Unguiculata) from Central Ghana,” Antiquity 81, no. 313 (September 2007): 686–98. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00095661 

  2. Amanda Logan, The Scarcity Slot: Excavating Histories of African Food Security (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020). 

  3. Andrew Dalby, “Black-eyed Pea,” in Food in the Ancient World From A to Z (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 56. 

  4. Ira A. Herniter, María Muñoz-Amatriaín, and Timothy J. Close, “Genetic, textual, and archeological evidence of the historical global spread of cowpea (Vigna unguiculata [L.] Walp.),” Legume Science 2, no. 4 (Dec., 2020), https://doi.org/10.1002/leg3.57 

  5. Adrian Miller, “Why Do We Eat Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day?,” Garden and Gun (December, 2020). https://gardenandgun.com/recipe/why-do-we-eat-black-eyed-peas-on-new-years-day/; see also Michael W. Twitty, “Why Black-Eyed Peas? Why Greens?,” Afroculinaria (blog), January 1, 2012. https://afroculinaria.com/2012/01/01/why-black-eyed-peas-why-greens/; Kayla Stewart, “Tracing the Origins of a Black American New Year’s Ritual,” The New York Times (28 December 2021). https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/24/dining/black-eyed-peas-greens-new-years.html 

  6. Jules Janick and Kime E. Hummer, “The 1500th Anniversary (512-2012) of the Juliana Anicia Codex: An Illustrated Dioscordiean Recension,” Chronica Horticulturae 52, no. 3 (2012), 15. 

  7. Judith Ann Carney, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the New World (Berkeley: University of California Press: Berkely, 2009), 74. 

  8. Ira A. Herniter, e57. 

  9. Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007). 

  10. Summary Statistics, Slave Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/database#statistics 

  11. Judith Ann Carney, “Seeds of Memory: Botanical Legacies of the African Diaspora,” in African Ethnobotany in the Americas (New York, NY: Springer, 2012), 19. https://www.geog.psu.edu 

  12. Judith Ann Carney, In the Shadow of Slavery, 149. 

  13. Black-eyed peas became “the third most important food crop produced on Carolina plantations between 1730 and 1776.” Judith Ann Carney, 220 fn 35. 

  14. Charles Ball, Slavery in the United States. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave Under Various Masters, and was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, During the Late War (New York: John S. Taylor, 1837), 200. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/ballslavery/ball.html 

  15. Francis Fedric, Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky; or, Fifty Years of Slavery in the Southern States of America (London: Wertheim, Macintosh, and Hunt, 1863). https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/fedric/fedric.xml 

  16. George Washington, 1787 letter. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0442 

  17. Research has not yet revealed if enslaved peoples also grew weary of the bean or if such attitudes were largely held by free people with more variety in their diets. Further work on this subject might yield more insight into the relationship between the availability of food and the development of dietary preferences and foodways. Our thanks to Professor Alicia Monroe for raising this question. Adelaide Stuart Dimitry, Wartime Sketches, Historical and Otherwise (Louisiana Printing Co. Press, 1911), 75. https://digital.ncdcr.gov/digital/collection/p15012coll8/id/6384/rec/75 

  18. George Washington Carver, “Some Possibilities of the Cowpea in Macon County, Alabama,” Experiment Station Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, Bulletin No. 19 (Tuskegee, Alabama: Tuskegee Institute Press, 1910), 5. 

  19. Kew Science, “Vigna Unguiculata (L.) Walp. Plants of the World Online Kew Science,” Plants of the World Online. Accessed July 12, 2021. http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:1127257-2

  20. “Afroculinaria – Exploring Culinary Traditions of Africa, African America and the African Diaspora.” Accessed July 23, 2021. https://afroculinaria.com/ 

  21. “Afroculinaria.” 

  22. The Southern Heritage Vegetables Cookbook (Birmingham, Alabama: Oxmoor House, 1983). http://archive.org/details/southernheritage0000unse; Michael W. Twitty. 

  23. Jessica B. Harris, “Prosperity Starts with a Pea,” The New York Times (2010): 368–370; Olivia Ware Terenzio, “Feijoada and Hoppin’ John: Dishing the African Diaspora in Brazil and the United States,” Southern Cultures 25 4 (2019): 158–75. 

  24. Jessica B. Harris; Olivia Ware Terenzio. 

  25. Jessica B. Harris; Olivia Ware Terenzio; Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife (Charleston, South Carolina: J. Russell, 1855). https://www.loc.gov/item/07028873/; Richard Wilk and Livia Barbosa, Rice and Beans: A Unique Dish in a Hundred Places (Providence, Rhode Island: Berg, 2012). 

  26. Olivia Ware Terenzio; Francis Lam, “Brazilian Soul Food,” The New York Times, May 27, 2015, sec. Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/magazine/brazilian-soul-food.html 

  27. Olivia Ware Terenzio; Francis Lam. 

  28. Olivia Ware Terenzio. 

  29. Olivia Ware Terenzio; Jennifer Jensen Wallach, Every Nation Has Its Dish: Black Bodies and Black Food in Twentieth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019). http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/utxa/detail.action?docID=5596573 

  30. It is hard to estimate the production of black-eyed peas worldwide for two reasons: cultivation is mainly in the hands of small-holder farmers and, because the crop is a staple food, most harvests are used locally rather than being exported. See V. Rawal and D.K. Navarro, eds. The Global Economy of Pulses (Rome: FAO, 2019). http://www.fao.org/3/i7108en/i7108en.pdf 

  31. “Cowpea.” Crop Trust. Accessed 15 July 2021. https://www.cwrdiversity.org/crop/cowpea/ 

  32. Elsa Matthus, A Global Rescue: Safeguarding the World’s Crop Wild Relatives (Bonn, Germany: Crop Wild Relatives, 2019). https://www.cwrdiversity.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/global_rescue_170x240_spread.pdf 

  33. Michael Major, “Cowpea: How to Make a Hardy Crop Even Tougher,” Crop Wild Relatives. Accessed 15 July 2021. https://www.cwrdiversity.org/cowpea/ 

  34. “Cowpea.” 

  35. Ira A. Herniter, e57. 

  36. Ira A. Herniter, e57. 

  37. https://www.cwrdiversity.org/cowpea-cracking-on-with-climate-change/; B.B. Singh et al., eds., Advances in Cowpea Research (Ibadan, Nigeria: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, 1997).