Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Purple peas, good for your heart ...

After blackeyed peas and crowder peas, purple peas (as my Granny called 'em) are my favorite peas.

Blackeyed peas and crowder peas aren't actually peas, of course (they're beans), but there's just something 'bout saying that you're down with a pea (apologies to The Rentals).

That said, here's a great story about purple peas:

Don't bother entering the World Cup Purple Hull Pea Shelling Competition this year.

That's because organizers say Doeleta Weaver, who's outshelled her competitors three years running, is planning to defend her crown at the Emerson, Ark., event this Saturday. Weaver is essentially unbeatable, having displaced the informal brigade of older women who for years took turns finishing first.

"She is absolutely phenomenal," says Bill Dailey, spokesperson for the Purple Hull Pea Festival. "She's got a natural knack for it."

More than a dozen ambitious shellers are expected to challenge Weaver this year, but Dailey predicted few of the younger aspirants would have much of a shot: "Adults always, almost inevitably, do the best," he says.

No matter how nimble their fingers, purple hull pea (a lanky cow pea that looks like a black-eyed pea, but – according to loyal Emersonites – tastes better) eaters who grew up in the mechanized shelling era are at a competitive disadvantage. While hulling peas and stringing beans remains a beloved Southern tradition, younger shellers' poor showing in the contest suggests the practice may prevail mostly in country songs and old folks' memories.

"If you grew up in our area, you grew up shelling peas," Dailey says. "There's something very moving about sitting on the front porch on a summer evening, shelling peas."

Today, even Weaver doesn't spend too much time shelling: "She told me, 'I don't shell one pea before the festival, and I don't shell one pea after the festival,'" Dailey reports.

Weaver hasn't yet bested the world record she set in 2007, when she cleanly shelled 17-3/4 ounces of purple hulls in five minutes. She managed to shell just 12-3/4 ounces in last year's winning heat:

"I don't think the peas were as good," she told festival organizers. "The pea itself was real purple, but once you got on the inside, it was like they weren't filled out or something."

Weaver still claimed first prize, an electric water fountain, a device that – like the fancy machines which now pry peas from their shells – generations of farmers who hauled their own water probably never imagined.

To challenge Weaver -- or, for slightly less masochistic pea fans, to enter the purple hull cooking or tilling contests -- visit the site. Registration is open now.

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