Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The General and the Pea

Just a couple weeks ago, we Southerners commemorated the 150th anniversary of the start of what, in Charleston at least, is referred to as “the recent unpleasantness”—also known as the War of Northern Aggression, the War of Northern Imperialism or, more plainly (and perhaps ironically), the Civil War.

Since nearly every event of any sort has, for me, some relation to food, I was reminded of something I once read about General Robert E. Lee and one of the South’s favorite legumes, the black-eyed pea.
Having been cultivated in the South since the 1700s, the black-eyed pea was already a food staple for Southerners. As the story goes, during the War, when Union troops swept through the South and took crops, livestock and food stores, they left the humble black-eyed pea, which the Yankees considered fit only for consumption by livestock. With little or nothing left in fields and pantries to eat, Southerners turned to black-eyed peas for nourishment.

Perhaps the most poignant part of this tale is this: As legend has it, afterward, whenever General Lee would pass a field of black-eyed peas, he would take time to stop and salute, acknowledging the role they played in sustaining the South through the dark days of the War.

Whether true or not (I’ve read that such stories, including the tradition of eating them for good luck on New Year’s Day, are the work of a PR genius trying to boost sales of black-eyed peas in the late 1940s), I still like to think of the veteran General pausing on his journey, looking out over a lush field of black-eyed peas, removing his hat and offering a salute to the small black-and-white pea that maybe … just maybe … helped save the South.

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