This story explores the complication relationship between foods claimed by the American South — including watermelon, okra, and beans — and the African slaves who brought those foods to North America.
Growing up on Sapelo Island, Georgia, Cornelia Walker Bailey never thought of red peas as anything special. Sapelo, a barrier island about the size of Manhattan, has about 50 residents, primarily descendants of African slaves who settled here after slavery was outlawed. In Bailey's family, the tiny red legume, with its thin, firm shell; creamy interior; and sweet, buttery flavor was just another staple she and her family planted, harvested, and cooked.
This red pea, which originated in Africa and is the original ingredient in the region's quintessential rice-and-beans dish Hoppin' John, is just one of the many heritage crops from the African continent receiving new attention from farmers, chefs, scientists, and food historians. Growing numbers of researchers, many of them African-American, are bringing to light the uncredited ways slaves and their descendants have shaped how Americans eat.