Some, mostly outsiders we would suspect, might even scratch their heads and ask, “... Cow what? You say the cows are festive in Charleston?”
In the unflappable words of Cool Hand Luke, a Hollywood character brought to life by the late Paul Newman, “What we have here, is a failure to communicate.” Actually, in the popular 1967 film, “Luke” was merely quoting infamous prison warden “Captain,” aptly played by the late Strother Martin.
But this is not a movie review. Although, for the record, the good folks of Bradley County’s second-largest city also know a little something about making silver-screen hits. Can anyone say “Wild River”?
Here’s the skinny on the doin’s.
On Saturday, Sept. 13, a group of hard-working organizers are bringing the third annual International Cowpea Festival and Cook-off to Charleston. For those unfamiliar with this global salute to the humble little cowpea, it’s bigger than what some might think.
Consider two facts:
One, Bush Brothers & Company (does that name ring a bell?) is again serving as the presenting sponsor. Next time you visit the grocery store, drop by the canned goods aisle. You’ll quickly make the connection.
Two, Whirlpool Corporation, a giant global outfit that manufactures quality home and commercial appliances, and whose assembly plant and call center in Cleveland serve as Bradley County’s largest employer with more than 2,000 workers, is the returning sponsor of the Whirlpool Cowpea Cook-off.
“Hmmm?” some might ponder. “Bush Brothers, that company with the talking dog, and Whirlpool, those folks who built the brand-new factory over on Benton Pike … they’re behind this cowpea shindig? That gives this kettle of beans a whole new flavor!”
Although, it’s more about peas than beans. Here’s why. In days of yore, when agriculture was less of a hobby and more of … life itself … the Charleston community and surrounding region were known for their prolific abundance of pea growers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Charleston once was recognized as the Cowpea Capital of the United States.
That’s because area farmers were dedicating so many acres and acres and acres … and acres … of fertile land to growing cowpeas. And that’s because everybody loved ’em … animals too. They sustained life. Moms and grandmas cooked them at least twice a day — we’re a little iffy on breakfast — and the cowpeas were great fodder for the livestock as well.
If enough cowpeas were on the table, or the trough, everybody was happy.
Charleston produced so many cowpeas, in fact, that farmers shipped them to other areas of the nation where folks loved the taste and the protein; hence, the meaning behind “Cowpea Capital of the United States.”
That concludes the history lesson.
Now, for an in-depth look at the cowpea itself. For those who don’t recognize the name, don’t think for a minute you’ve never eaten one. Chances are good you have.
“Cowpea” is just the generic term for the crowder pea, black-eyed pea, cream pea, silver-hull and other field pea varieties. Collectively, they’re known as vigna unguiculata. Yes, that’s vigna unguiculata. You read it correctly.
In 2012, Charleston folks wanted a way to honor this little legacy of agriculture. They don’t want to be a big city. They just want to bring the world to their big little pea.
So they stirred together their own pre-autumn festival and called it the International Cowpea Festival and Cook-off. Year 1 brought promise and landed the festival’s return in Year 2.
It’s still growing and the cowpea armies are hard charging into Year 3.
For such a humble little legume, there is much to say. However, we have exhausted our editorial space for today. We will have more to say later.
In the meantime, we encourage all — Charleston, Cleveland, Bradley County, Southeast Tennessee, the entire Volunteer State, the expansive South, America and Planet Earth — to mark your calendars.
The day is Sept. 13. The place is Charleston Park. The time is 10 a.m.
You can get more of the cowpea lowdown by visiting the festival website at www.cowpeafestival.com. We recommend it because there you’ll find updates on the third annual event’s professional and amateur cowpea cook-off, the photography contest, the vendors, the sponsors, the storytelling, the character greetings, the handmade arts and crafts, the children’s area featuring games and air toys, the food and the entertainment.
You can also find out how to spoon your way into serving as a cook-off judge.
Questions about sponsorships, how you can help support the festival ... or just, questions ... may be directed to a pair of ladies who are ringleading the cowpea cause: Melissa Woody, 423-472-6587, or Darlene Goins, 423-413-8284.
Those who have attended other festivals to pay homage to preferred food groups — cornbread, green beans, banana pudding, biscuits, Doodle Soup and the like — should plan on this: Save room on your plate for a few cowpeas.
... Because they’re coming.