Caroline Vaughan

Emerson Pea Festival

The season of fresh corn, watermelons and tomatoes also signals family reunions and community festivals across the South. From the mountains of Southwest Virginia to the plains of East Texas, tables are loaded with foods sure to soothe the heart of the homesick Southerner. Much of the summer and fall, we will be capturing these celebrations and reunions, for our latest documentary, At the Common Table.

Our first trip of the season led to the Purple Hull Pea Festival in Emerson, Arkansas, population 359.The festival is held in late June, and on that day the population of the town quadruples.

Purple hull peas are a deep South delicacy, related to blackeyed peas in the same way that French champagne is related to cheap cava. For those unfamiliar with purple hulls as well as the multitude of varieties of field peas or Southern peas, the Washington Post just published an excellent introduction.

The Emerson festival features cooking and eating competitions, a pea shelling contest, a purple hull pea lunch and the World Championship Rototiller Race. The organizer, Bill Haley, explained “we are also the world’s only rototiller race.”

Peas and cornbread are serious business in Emerson. The cooking contests are judged by folks who study cornbread with the same intensity that Baryshnikov brings to ballet. “We know good cornbread,” one of them explained simply. Big Daddy, of Big Daddy’s Hot Water Cornbread, passed out samples of his freshly fried golden orbs to the crowd of onlookers. (If you are not familiar with hot water cornbread, please stay tuned.)

Three generations of a family from just across the line in Louisiana swept the cooking events, and one of the younger members snared top prize in his pea shelling division. Yes, there were divisions. I participated in the adult division. Although I was no shirk, I still shelled less than half of that produced by the winner, Julia Early, a twelve time champion. The peas served at lunch were divine as were the fresh tomato slices served alongside them.

For some of us, the real star of the show was a table in the school cafeteria loaded with homemade cakes to be auctioned off. All were old-fashioned beauties such as chocolate pound, fig preserve, and Italian cream. After losing out on a caramel cake, we set the highest bid of the day for a snowy coconut layered confection.

Thunderstorms rained out the rototiller race before anyone could be declared a clear champion, but not before a machine outran its driver, tossing her into the dust.

We left Emerson with our coconut prize in hand as well as an invitation to a family reunion the next week. More peas and hot water cornbread guaranteed.