Purple Hull Peas

In Season, Ingredient, Summer
on June 1, 2006
Purple Hull Pea Festival

A purple hull pea patch has long been a tasty tongue twister and a backyard fixture in Emerson, Ark. Generations of kids have grown up tending the family pea patch, shelling peas for spending money and eating platters of peas and cornbread.

“Around here we call them lifesavers,” Billy Williams says about the humble Southern peas with their colorful 10- to 12-inch-long purple hulls. He plants eight acres of purple hulls as soon as the ground warms up, usually the first or second week in May.

Like other Southern peas (black-eye, pink eye, crowder and lady peas), purple hulls have a thick pod that protects them from the heat, but once the peas ripen—in about 65 days—they need to be picked within a few days.

“A lot of people want to pick their own. People just go crazy for them,” says Williams. He offers “you-pick-’em” by the bushel at his Emerson farm.

Like Williams, grower Melissa Johnson caters to the local fresh market and doesn’t have a bit of trouble selling every pea she can produce on her five acres. “I’ve even shipped purple hull peas in dry ice to Indiana to a woman who ate them as a child,” says Johnson. Her own 9-year-old son, Matt, “will sit down with a bowl of purple hull peas and chopped onions and crumble his cornbread in there and eat until he can’t eat any more.”

Indeed, people in the town of 359 cherish the local legume, which thrives in extreme southern Arkansas where warm temperatures and sandy soil are ideal, says Bill Dailey. His official title is “Pea-R Guy” for Emerson’s Purple Hull Pea Festival, which has been held each June since 1990. “If it’s peas you’re after, you’d better arrive early, Daily warns. “Last year we nearly had a fist fight break out over the last ones.” Log on to www.purplehull.com for more information.

Note: The 2013 festival is scheduled for June 29.

—By Marti Attoun, a writer in Joplin, Mo.