Ark of Taste
Sea Island Red Peas
The first professional rice farmers to engage in colonial rice production in the Sea Islands just South of Charleston were Italian canal engineers from the Sea Islands near Venice. These engineers were employed to develop the complex bay systems that made Carolina rice cultivation possible before planters employed the African tidal trunk and dike system to open new ricelands to satisfy growing export demand. One of the most significant creolizations between Italian presence in the Antebellum Carolina Sea Islands and the many African diaspora grains and legumes involved in rice husbandry is the dish Reezy Peezy in Gullah, the African Creole dialect of the Carolina Sea Islands around Charleston, South Carolina. This name is associated with Italian Rize a Beze, the 11th century St. Mark’s Feast dish of new peas and rice. The hallmark legume in the Carolina Gold Rice version of the dish is the Sea Island Red Pea, harvested green in the spring for the celebration dish and dried to small red peas for cooking during the remaining seasons.
The evolution of this dish led to local Sea Island foodways based upon the Rice Pot and the Pea Pot, so named because both were the fist pots on kitchen fires at dawn. The traditional dish of Carolina Gold Rice and Sea Island Red Pea Gravy was served from morning through night on Antebellum rice plantations. The only version of Reezy Peezy remaining in the Carolina Lowcountry today is still cooked with Sea Island Red Peas in very traditional rural households on the Sea Islands and almost nowhere else in the Carolinas.
Reezy Peezy is an extraordinary dish of high and low flavor and texture characteristics and falls into the broad world category of legume pilafs with startling local identity. Contemporary sustainable rice husbandry demands legume rotation, which, in turn demands authentic pairing of Carolina Gold Rice and Sea Island Red Peas, which, in turn, requires the survival their foodways.
Sea Island Red Peas are very small and difficult to hull when green, which is one reason fresh Reezy Peezy is no longer a spring celebration dish in the Carolina Lowcountry. But the tradition of First Pot dawn cookery survives in rural areas of the Sea Islands along the South Carolina Coast, all using dried Sea Island Red Peas. A true Pea Pot is black iron, seasoned, and has an unremoveable red hued ring inside from daily Sea Island Red Pea Gravy cooking. Carolina Gold Rice, in any form, is cooked beside the Sea Island Red Pea Gravy pot and Reezy Peezy is served as simple rice with gravy ladled over it. Authentic ingredients for making Sea Island Red Pea Gravy include smoked pork neck, wild or cultivated alliums, wild mushrooms, spices running the spectrum from simple dried red pepper and wild Red Bay Laurel to a fresh toasted variant of curry, and sea salt. Native Sea Island hunters still prepare a version of game (wild duck, for instance), Sea Island Red Peas and rice into a stew, which is a small iteration of the Carolina Bog, descended from Creole traditions of African stew cookery with Far Eastern congee influences of the Indies Rice Trade. These remarkable foods inscribe comforting and lasting palate impressions on any who are fortunate enough to taste them.
Sustainable rice husbandry is critical to the preservation of the Carolina Rice Kitchen and its foodways. Sea Island Red Pea production was abandoned along with rice during the depression, but collections of feral peas and a few stalwart gardeners and seedsmen saved them from extinction and make possible the rare enjoyment of these foods today. Sea Island Peas were the lynchpin of Antebellum sustainable rice farming rotation to improve the soil and still perform that purpose with on-farm soil management today in the Carolina Lowcountry. But fewer than 100 acres (most by, or supported by, Anson Mills) are planted to Sea Island Peas in rice rotations. Highlighting Sea Island Red Pea foodways on the Ark of Taste promotes broader plantings and further their chances for survival in the 21st century.
Photo by Kay Rentschler for Anson Mills