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The Story of the Humble Cow Pea

The following are words provided by a true Southerner trapped north of the Mason-Dixon.

In the South we are fond of tradition and one of the New Year's day traditions which we observe is the eating of Black-eyed Peas, also known in the South as Cow Peas.

Tradition's purpose is to help us remember and it serves to teach those who were too young to witness the original lesson that was so important to our ancestors.

So what's so important about Black-eyed Peas? What lesson could that humble little pea possibly teach us? Here is the little story.

The Cow Pea was brought to the shores of North America in the late 1600s. It was not considered a food source for humans, hence the name, Cow Peas. They were grown for feeding livestock. That was, until the turbulent period between 1861 and 1865 when Southerners were fighting for the independence of their Southland.

During this time the US Army had the custom of burning everything in its path that it couldn't steal and use for itself or ship North. Cash crops like cotton and tobacco were often burned to prevent its use in funding the Confederate cause. The burning of food crops often led to the intentional starvation deaths of thousands of Southern women and children. One crop that was often overlooked was the Cow Pea. It was just an animal feed and with the animals stolen and shipped North or shot and left to rot where they fell, what was the sense in expending the time and manpower in burning a useless livestock feed crop?

During the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi the ravaging horde of United States troops burned every food crop surrounding the city that their vandal torches could touch. Every available food source for the citizens of Vicksburg, animal or vegetable was laid waste. The patriotic citizens held out for as long as possible eating shoe leather and rat meat. If an artillery mule was accidentally killed by an incoming federal shell, its meat barely had time to cool before it was cut up and distributed to the starving civilians and soldiers in the city. The shelling was so thick from the federal guns that the citizens took to living in dank and filthy bomb-proof caves cut from dirt banks. Disease took its toll along with starvation. No doubt, the prayers rose thickly to Heaven from Vicksburg during that brutal siege and prayers were answered. It was discovered that the Cow Peas were still available and they didn't taste so bad when you're hungry. The dried peas were ground into flower and mixed with water to make bread. They weren't too bad just boiled in water or even eaten raw. The threat of death from starvation has a way of making things look different. I know it's hard to imagine anyone turning up their nose at Black-eyed Peas today but back then it would have been like asking someone to eat dried dog food.

Even though the city of Vicksburg eventually fell to the forces of federal despotism, the lives of many Southerners were spared due to the little Cow Pea. This scene was played out all across the South, especially in the swath of desolation cut by Sherman in his vindictive march to the sea.

But what has the little Cow Pea taught us? Why have we remembered it every year since the close of that war so long ago? Many people will just tell you that eating Black-eyed Peas will bring you good luck, but for our Southern ancestors it wasn't about good luck.

The Cow Pea reminded us that God never places a burden on us too great to bear and he always leaves a way out to the faithful. It was a lesson in humility. Sometimes the way out is to humble ourselves. The Cow Pea showed us that we can adapt and persevere in the face of death and overwhelming odds. It gave us hope when all hope had fled. It was a symbol of strength in that the small and insignificant can confound the strong and mighty.

And there are other things the little pea taught us. Our fathers wanted us to remember the importance of liberty through Southern independence. To them, it was worth every deprivation imaginable. It was worth starvation and disease. It was worth dismemberment, blindness and other horrific wounds on the battlefield and slow death. It was worth the risk of rotting in a government prison. It was worth losing all your worldly possessions. Liberty at every cost save the loss of honor because the alternative was slavery under a despotic government.

So every New Year's Day, when you hoist a forkful of Black-eyes Peas, think about this; Are we more free today than our ancestors over 150 years ago? If you say yes, go back to sleep. If you say no, prepare with me for hard times and sacrifice.

Happy New Year.


Worth Quoting

If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace.  We ask not your counsels nor your arms.  Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you.  May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.

Samuel Adams


What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue?   

Edmund Burke