Pickled Black Eyed Peas – A Paean to Helen Corbitt

Throughout the south, New Years Day is the one for building a lucky meal based on black eyed peas, (BEPs). Whether it’s with a ham hock and greens, or hoppin’ john, a whole lot of those perky little field peas get eaten on January first.

Field peas are grown over millions of acres worldwide. Closely related to green peas, they are an annual crop that originated in India, then migrated to Africa, and to North America some 400 years ago.

While we all pretty much have heard of the black eyes, there’s a bunch more cultivated and enjoyed here in the states – look up the Mississippi Silver, Texas Cream, and Dixie Lee varieties and you’ll get the picture. Check out Rancho Gordo, or Camellia for great dried black eyed peas, and Camellia offers several other field pea varieties.

Popular as they are, black eyed peas do present a bit of a problem for many folks – they just don’t like the taste. Field peas in general, and BEPs in particular are not bland – they’re quite bold in flavor, with an earthy, almost funky top note that many find off putting.

Perhaps the most famous hater of BEPs was Helen Corbitt, an Irish Yankee force of nature who, against her better judgement, took a job teaching catering and restaurant management at UT Austin in 1940. Her comments on that speak to her wonderful personality – she said, ‘Who the hell wants to go to Texas? Only I didn’t say ‘hell’ in those days. I learned to swear in Texas.’

When Corbitt hit the Lone Star state, its cuisine was generally abysmal. Helen Corbitt almost single handedly raised the bar of cooking in Texas – But black eyed peas remained her kryptonite, until she came up with the perfect solution, having moved on from UT to take over restaurant management at Neiman Marcus – Texas Caviar.

Texas Caviar was, under Corbitt’s skilled hand, basically quick pickled black eyed peas – BEPs with onion, garlic, oil and vinegar, a pinch of salt and twist of pepper – and my oh my, were they popular. Neiman Marcus sold a ton of it. So if you or someone you love can’t quite hack the taste of BEPs, Helen’s brilliant twist on those field peas is the answer.

Look up ‘authentic Texas Caviar recipes,’ and you’ll find a raft of them – almost all of which have everything but the kitchen sink in the mix, and almost none of which mention Corbitt or reflect her original recipe. Fact is, the specter that Helen faced when she arrived in Austin has risen again with these recipes – canned goods, evident in spades. Canned corn, tomatoes, chiles, green peas and black beans, just to name a few.

You’ll also find bell peppers, sugar, bottled salad dressing, avocados, and… yeah – you get the picture. Now, to be fair, a lot of that may be added to hide the funk of BEPs, and if so, Helen would likely approve.

Here’s my swing at a recipe based on Helen Corbitt’s original inspiration, with just a twist or two reflecting things I really like. When Helen came up with this gem, it was 1957 – she didn’t have a whole hell of a lot of choices for onion varieties, oils, or vinegars – even jalapeños would have been a bit exotic back then. Now we have choices galore, and those should be celebrated – Helen would want us to do just that.

Try it out, and then tweak it to exactly how you like it and make it yours – you can certainly do a vinegar brine without oil if you’d like to. Whatever you make, don’t even think about using canned peas – cardboard, even nicely pickled, remains cardboard at heart.

Thank You Helen Corbitt Pickled Black Eyed Peas

4 Cups cooked Black Eyed Peas

1/4 small Onion

1 Jalapeño Chile

3 fat Cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/2 Cup Pineapple Vinegar

6-8 twists fresh Black Pepper

3 finger pinch Kosher Salt

Peel, end trim and dice onion.

End trim and dice jalapeño – Field strip the chile if you want less heat, AKA remove the white inner membrane – that’s where the heat lives in chiles, not in the seeds.

End trim, smash, peel and mince garlic.

Pour cooked beans into a clean quart mason jar.

In a small mixing bowl, combine oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper and whisk with a fork to fully emulsify.

Pour dressing over the beans, leaving about 1/2” head space.

There will likely be a bit too much of everything to get it all in the jar – Darn – guess you’ll just have to scarf that down…

Seal jar and refrigerate for at least 3-4 hours to allow the flavors to marry and the tartness to develop – and overnight is even better.

Will last about 5 days refrigerated – as if it’ll be there that long…

Kaye Harris’ Black Eyed Pea Hummus

Kaye Harris is a Facebook Friend. Kay is one of those people that I genuinely consider a friend, even though we live far from each other and haven’t yet met face-to-face. If you look her up, you’ll see her short self-description as ‘Leftist, Feminist Patriot, Graduate of Satan’s Reform School, Advanced Degree in Verbosity from STFU.’ That’s probably in a nutshell why I dig her so much.

I know that she’s smart, funny, deeply caring, widely talented, a great cook, and a wonderful friend, mother, and grandmother. She’s from the Gulf Coast – grew up in Mobile and lives in Biloxi. She’s the epitome of why M and I love the south so much – that sleepy, hot, muggy air that encourages, nay, demands that you to settle the fuck down. The amazing people who invite you to swipe an ice cold beer bottle across your forehead, put your feet up on the porch rail, and set a spell – supper’ll be along…

Kaye and I have shared affinities across a bunch of things, but cooking great food may well be foremost among them. When January 1st rolls around, I know she’ll be making something with black eyed peas, as will I. It also comes as no surprise that she’s got great recipes for stuff other than field peas with ham hock and collard greens. If you truly dig black eyed peas, you’ll have options in your quiver – because anything so good deserves to be celebrated in a bunch of ways.

Here is Kaye’s Black Eyed Pea Hummus, which she promises is fabulous. She’d be right about that. Y’all enjoy, and come see me now, hear?

Kaye Harris’ Black Eyed Pea Hummus

2 1/2 Cups cooked Black Eyed Peas

1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

3 Tablespoons Tahini

2 cloves fresh Garlic

2 Tablespoons fresh Lemon Juice

1 teaspoon Smoked Paprika

3/4 teaspoon Kosher Salt

1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper

For Topping –

More EVOO, Paprika, Red Pepper Flakes, Maldon Sea Salt (or any swanky finishing salt you dig), Fresh ground Black Pepper

Drain black eyed peas well.

End trim, smash, and peel garlic.

In a food processor, add the garlic and pulse until minced.

Add BEPs, tahini, lemon juice, smoked paprika, salt and pepper – pulse until all ingredients are well integrated, and forming a thick paste.

Turn processor on and add the olive oil in a slow drizzle, until you’ve attained a smooth, creamy consistency.

Transfer to a serving bowl, and top with more EVOO, paprika, red pepper flakes, finishing salt, and fresh ground black pepper.

Devour with abandon.