This morning’s post is for those obessionistas like me who can’t resist digging into the strange and multiple paths along which people have taken plants, in this case the black-eyed pea (aka the cow pea or Vigna unguiculata).

It was first domesticated in West Africa, botanists tell us. A couple of years ago I posted on black-eyed peas in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, suggesting that they were a trace of African presence in the State.  I still think there’s something to that for the reasons I suggest in my earlier post.

Thanks to comments which have been trickling in for the past couple of years and further reading, it seems clear that the history of black-eyed peas in Spanish America, particularly Mexico, is much more complex than in the Anglo parts of the Caribbean and what is now the United States.

In Anglo regions, Africans are the clear candidates.  Judith Carney, in The Shadow of Slavery, quotes a number of English commentators from the eighteenth century who expressed surprise at this bean, novel to them, and suggested it came with slavery (124-25).

In Mexico, it seems likely that the black-eyed pea, which had spread widely in the Old World following its domestication (though not to northern Europe) was brought independently from three continents.  What follows is taken from the comments, and just lightly edited.

African origins

From Nils Bernstein

From what I can find, the earliest mention of them [in Anglo regions] is Jamaica in 1675, more than 100 years after the galleons across the Pacific started.

I was just in Chiapas, where they also have black-eyed peas, and call them (among other things) (and again with the ‘not ours’ concept) “frijol de Castilla” (also what they’re called in parts of South America, I believe), which suggests an Atlantic connection.

It turns out they’re also popular in Yucatán and Campeche, where they go by the Mayan word (or maybe a kinda Mayan/Spanish hybrid word?) “xpelón,” (they have two varieties, both cowpeas but not exactly what we know as black-eyed peas) and are favored by poorer people. I suppose them going by a Mayan(ish) word could suggest very early consumption.

With the African presence in Mexico so  under studied & downplayed (by all involved cultures/countries!), and as you say, they were in Mex from the 16th century, I wouldn’t be surprised if cowpeas came with them quite early, and the fact that ‘official black-eyed pea documentation’ starts with late 17th-century Caribbean, we could just chalk up to a lack of research into the trade and practices of Africans in Mexico in the 16th century.

Iberian origins

From EatNopales.

Both of my parents are from the highlands of Jalisco where Black Eye Peas are also consumed… but for various reasons.

The deeply rooted historical reason is that many “Spanish” families that settled the area in the 18th century are really Portuguese from ancient Lusitania as well as Extremadura. You will find a proliferation of last names such as Reynoso & Fonseca etc., By the 18th century.. Black Eyed Peas would have very much been part of their culinary traditions in Iberia.

A more recent clue comes from my own family oral history. Prior to the Green Revolution in Mexico during the 1960′s… the typical Mexican rural family ate a much greater variety of beans… usually planting about 5 varieties of which Frijol Carita, a Vulgaris which looks like Black Eyed Peas was a prominent bean in the area. However as Green Revolution farming took root the Mexican Pinto proved to be the highest yield / lowest cost bean and consumption became a little more monoculture.

Nonetheless.. most families still longingly idolize & occasional splurge for the special beans of the past… Flor de Mayo, Bayo, Pinquitos etc., As Mexican migrants from Jalisco first made their way to the Southeast U.S. in the 1980′s they encountered the Black Eye Pea, found that it was relatively cheap and started using it as Frijol Carita. Now with NAFTA, Mexico has been flooded with cheap, subsidized US beans and my guess is that the Black Eye Pea is considered a cheap substitute for Frijol Carita or in Guanajuato lingo.. Veronicas (on occasion also referred to as Judias)

And thanks to Adam Balic for pointing out the black-eyed peas in Annibale Carracci’s Beaneater (1580-1590).

The Beaneater by Annibale Carracci (

Filipino Origins

From Nils Bernstein

An inventory from an Acapulco-bound Manila galleon in 1600 had large quantities of “beans and legumes” aboard.

Besides foods being exported, it’s documented that the Acapulco-bound galleons had foods to feed the Asian crew, who didn’t like Spanish foods.

Despite the galleons also being called “nao de china”, Filipinos referred to as “Chinese” (sometimes even to this day, in Mexico), etc. it’s important to note that the Asian crew (and some passengers/slaves) were Filipino, with different culinary practices. One of those being that, unlike elsewhere in Asia, soybeans (which one historian assumed were the ‘beans’ aboard the Mex-bound ships) were NOT commonly used for food/sauces in the Philippines, while cowpeas were.

So, as early as 1600, on Acapulco-bound ships from the Philippines, there would have been beans and legumes that were not garbanzos and favas (Spanish diet, documented as being the beans on Mex-bound ships from Spain), not Phaseolus (those were brought to the Philippines, not vice versa), and not soybeans (not in the Filipino diet, not of large exportation value). Cowpeas, perhaps?!

We also know that many of the Asian crew were recruited to remain in Mexico to cultivate coconut plantations, and also many simply escaped, so fair to assume they would have carried some of those foods with them (esp something so portable and easily propagated as beans/legumes).

Again, they certainly came on Atlantic slave ships as well, though I have to imagine that being a slower process of dissemination, since unlike free Asians on the Manila galleons, it’s not as if slaves got to bring anything, or were able to farm freely upon arrival.

The yorimuni bean of Sonora is Vigna unguicalata. With Sinaloa and Sonora being on the west coast and with close ties to the galleons, and the native people calling them, essentially, ‘white man’s bean’, i thought the connection would be to the galleons rather than people of African origin living there. But as I think about it, “yorimuni” likely just refers to ‘not ours’ – since all other beans (Phaseolus) were indigenous. Yorimuni is a Yaqui word roughly meaning “white man’s bean” (yori is often said to mean simply ‘foreigner’ or ‘white man’, but its meanings point closer to a conquering foreigner to whom money must be paid, as well as traitor…that is, NOT a foreigner of African origin).  It’s very common in India and found widely in the Philippines.

It may have found popularity in Sonora (and to some degree Sinaloa) because it thrives in hot and dry weather, unlike many other beans.

They were growing/eating cowpeas in the Philippines pre-Conquest.

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