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In Season My Fair Lady

Text, illustration and photo by Mary Warner

The Crush Googling her name yielded even fewer details as to her whereabouts, as
Like many relationships, ours began over dinner. She was different than well as the bleak forecast that I would likely never see her again. Ac-
anything I had ever seen before, with a smaller and more elegant shape cording to the Internet, she was a rare find. My best bet to run into her
than her plump cousins. Although she appeared slightly jaundiced and would be at the local farmer’s market in either summer or early fall, but
also less fair, I could not stop thinking of her. after offering vendors both a detailed description of her fine features
and distinguishing attributes, they just shrugged. They hadn’t seen a
It would be a while before we would meet again, but for the moment I lady pea in years.
did what anyone with a crush would do and asked everyone about her. Is
that really her name? Where can I find her? At the time, only the mother Late summer came, and so did a renewed interest in finding her around
of the woman who made the introduction, and John Currence, chef and the same time a friend decided to visit the Deep South for the first
proprietor of City Grocery in Oxford, MS, could offer an opinion. Yes, time. I envisioned the perfect Southern meal to welcome him: lard-
they had seen her before and that was actually her name; and laced cornbread, glistening tomatoes, crunchy bits of fried okra, and
no, neither of them could pin down her baubles of my lady piled high on his plate. Weeks in advance I con-
exact location. sulted Liz Stagg, co-owner with Frank Coppola of Oxford’s farmer’s
market, the place where for months my name was on a lady pea waiting
list. Liz believed that lady peas would come in that week and suggested
that I go with her to the wholesale farmers’ exchange in Memphis to
get some fresh off the truck.

The Stake-out
Our 2:00 AM journey began with a warning.

“Sometimes the lady peas don’t come in. You just don’t know when
to expect them,” Liz said. An hour later we arrived in an industrial
area of Memphis that was illuminated by sulfur lamps and the
high-beam lights of pick-up trucks. Outside, farmers set out their
spoils, then stood with hands on their hips discussing the dry
weather and its effect on the crops. It seemed as though they
were waiting for something to happen. They were. There was
buzz among them that one farmer would be bringing in a lady
pea crop.

Esteem for Bruce Little ran deep among the waiting men, and
they insisted that he could answer any and all of my ques-
tions about lady peas. Bruce arrived with a truck filled to ca-
pacity with sweet potatoes, onions, and a mess of
purple-hull peas just as the sun peered over the horizon. To
my dismay, there were no lady peas. He explained that
planting three crops to produce peas throughout the
summer to the middle of October is not enough to guar-
antee a yield. Two other factors must be favorable: good
weather and a sufficient work crew to harvest and shell
them. Neither of those was in my favor.

The size of the lady pea, described by some as an “elongated BB,” There are also those individuals obsessed with her, seeking her out as
makes shelling them an unpleasant task. Whereas other legumes though she were fine china. In a time when what we eat is threatened
produce a sizable portion after their undressing, a pile of lady pea pods by genetic engineering, obsessions with the elusive lady pea prolongs
will amount to only a handful of booty. This explains why in some her existence in our food supply. In the case of the lady pea, the “craze”
markets lady peas sell for $6.50 to $9.50 per pound compared to $3.99 for them ensures her survival.
or less per pound for other types of shelled beans.

As with luxuries such as caviar or champagne, Bruce theorized that Green with Envy
demand for lady peas is a matter of cost. His preference for purple-hull I had long since given up my taste for the lady pea, but found myself
peas aside, he saw no reason why lady peas should garner a high price, thinking about them once more after reading a casual entry on field peas
aside from the fact that they are difficult to get to the consumer. For in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. In their
him, taste had never been a factor in his like or dislike of her. Here he is book, a kind of how-to guide for Southern food that is replete with old
wrong. The lady pea is far more refined, with a flavor as delicate as its and new-fashioned recipes, lady peas are mentioned in the same breath
structure. Compared to other legumes, it tastes neither earthy nor as other cream peas. To the Lee Bros. credit, one of Stitt’s recipes dedi-
meaty, but clean. cated to the lady pea suggests using favas or sweet peas as a credible sub-
stitute. They hardly are. Instead, the Lee Bros. offer a recipe for which
I left Memphis empty-handed, feeling both silly and misunderstood. any kind of field pea can be used, including the delicate lady pea.
Still, I was a little bit wiser about the lady pea even though my
Southern meal that night would be incomplete.

Moving On
Perhaps knowing too much, I began to lose interest in my vegetable
love. I finally did see her at Oxford’s farmers’ market and I recall dis-
passionately buying a pound of them along with a bag of onions and a
few heads of garlic. A year passed with a full plate of other discoveries:
pork from a local farmer; quinoa from the co-op; and later, spicy dried
mango strips and strange teas from a whole foods store. As quickly as
the lady pea appeared in my life, she disappeared.

Bored one day, I Googled her again. Since our first encounter, Frank
Stitt, the famed Alabama chef, proclaimed lady peas to be his “par-
ticular favorite” of the shelled beans. A writer for the Gothamist in
NYC incorrectly identified her as being the same as purple-hull peas;
and most noticeably, several citations mentioned her “cult-like” fol-
lowing in the South. (In the North, shell beans are regarded as animal
fodder, and as such, are less likely to end up on restaurant menus.)

How does something so difficult to obtain generate that kind of vener-
ation? Liz Stagg believes it is in part due to nostalgia. The majority of
people who are familiar with lady peas will relate their experience of
eating them to their grandmother’s garden. Today, farmers weigh the
cost of production, which is mostly the difficulty shelling, not growing
lady peas, against what the demand of them would be if sold at a
premium. People who buy lady peas aren’t necessarily wealthy; they are
just people who grew up with family gardens. Spring 2007 / Edible Memphis 7
“How does something so difficult to obtain
generate that kind of veneration?”
Seeing her lauded in reviews revived my interest. Like someone for- This summer will offer yet another opportunity to taste the lady pea
getting the particular kiss of former love, I had forgotten how she should I find her by happenstance. For now I can only wonder why I
tasted, and perhaps even looked. I wanted to remember. Consulting Liz devoted so much energy to the pursuit of an elusive, if not fickle veg-
once again, I was reminded that the lady pea’s appearance is “more like etable. Perhaps for the same reason, it is that way for anyone who has
a pellet, maybe even smaller, yellowish, or bright green depending on ever fallen in love. It just happens.
when it is picked.” Though I was not deterred by the bland description,
I began to wonder why I liked the vegetable in the first place. So one
Saturday morning, knowing quite well that lady pea season was months
Mary Warner has contributed book reviews to Paste Magazine and
away, I set off to an Easy-Way market, a place I was assured she could
writes about art and culture for the Oxford Town. She can be found
be found.
online at

The original Easy-Way at 80 Main Street in downtown Memphis opened
its doors in 1932. Today, it sits across the street from a corporate
sandwich shop just a few city blocks from the banks of the Mississippi
River. The market’s orange eaves glow against the gray of the buildings
and illuminates a trolley that stops just outside its doors. Inside, cash reg- Should you
isters are hurdles for customers to exit and enter the store. The space is
small and narrow with dry goods on the right, produce and dairy on the
be so lucky...
left, and a butcher in the back. It took only a glance for me to find where Lady peas are a dainty legume requiring the most minimal
the lady peas would be, and that same look brought me the assistance of
preparation to bring out their flavor. My favorite way to
twenty-year-old grocery clerk, Anthony.
serve them is with a splash of good olive oil and a generous

As if she were a missing person I asked him the last time he saw a lady sprinkling of fresh garden herbs.

pea, because where I expected her to be was a tan bucket filled with
Cook two cups of fresh shelled lady peas in salted boiling
pink-eyed peas. Anthony pointed at them, a gesture leading me to be-
water until al dente. Drain. Put lady peas in serving dish.
lieve he thought they were the same. I explained that they were not,
and then asked him how long he had been working at Easy-Way. Stir in one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and several
pinches of chopped fresh herbs to taste (thyme, basil, mint,
“Just a few months,” he said, and his response explained everything. or a mixture.) Add a few grinds of black pepper and a dash
Anthony had yet to work during the height of lady pea season, when of salt. Stir lady peas and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve
the market would be so flooded with requests for the legume that their warm or at room temperature.
availability is on a strict, first-come, first-serve basis. Anthony grew up
in Memphis without a family garden and regular shelled beans were all
he knew.

Leaving Easy-Way was different than driving away from the farmers’
market years ago. There was no disappointment or embarrassment, let
alone lack of sleep. In fact, whereas in the past I proudly shunned the
purple-hull peas, I comfortably settled for a half-pound of shelled pink-
eyed peas (which are essentially a purple-hull pea) and contemplated on
the drive home the meal I would prepare with them.
Nope—these are not lady peas—just the pink-eyed pea replacements.

8 Edible Memphis / Spring 2007