The day after we got married, Jeff and I sat down to a romantic New Year’s Day dinner in Hawaii with a huge room full of rabid Hawaii Warriors fans, who were there to rally around the big-screen TV and cheer on the Warriors in the Hawaii Bowl. We were debating whether to head somewhere else when the waiter arrived to give us the lowdown on the day’s special, a buttery piece of walu with a side that he wasn’t too sure about. He apologized, went back to the kitchen, returned and confessed that he didn’t have a clue about the special side: black-eyed peas.

Black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day in Hawaii? We stayed.

Southerners have been eating black-eyed peas for three centuries. George Washington Carver encouraged farmers to plant black-eyed peas, because they add nitrogen to the soil. They’re also nutritious, which is why we cook them with pork. To balance the scales.

I found this recipe for The Painter’s Black-Eyed Pea Cakes in Martha Hall Foose’s “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea,” a cookbook full of original takes on Southern favorites. In the book, Hall writes that her friend Taylor Bowen Ricketts, a painter, serves these cakes with greens and Comeback Sauce as a first course for dinner parties. Most cooks don’t experiment much with black-eyed peas, and even variations like Hoppin’ John tend to be pretty low key, so this recipe got my attention. It’s a revelation of black-eyed peas combined with minced onion and chopped red and green bell peppers, seasoned with parsley, basil and cayenne and coated with panko before frying. The cakes are fresh and flavorful with a little kick, perfect with greens, as a side or eaten as a black-eyed pea burger with a few thick slices of homegrown tomato.

As for the Comeback Sauce, I’d never heard of it, but Robert St. John calls it “the Queen Mother of all Mississippi condiments.” Foose writes that the sauce, which tastes a little like a “spicy Thousand Island,” originated in Greek restaurants in the late 20s or early 30s in Mississippi, where she says people put it on everything, from seafood to salads, onion rings and crackers.

Wish I could have tried it with that walu.

The Painter’s Black-Eyed Pea Cakes

Adapted from Martha Hall Foose’s “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea”

Makes 12 cakes

  • 1 slice bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 whole garlic cloves, plus 2 cloves, minced
  • 1 pound fresh black-eyed peas
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 cups panko or fresh French bread crumbs
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Comeback Sauce (recipe below)
  1. In a large pot over medium heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Add the whole garlic cloves; cook 1 minute more. Add peas and enough water to cover by 2 inches. Simmer for 30 minutes, or until tender. Drain peas; discard garlic. Transfer half the peas to a large bowl, and mash them (with a potato masher or the back of a spoon) into a chunky puree.
  2. Add the remaining peas, minced garlic, onion, peppers, parsley, basil, cayenne, salt and cream. Mix well. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.
  3. With damp hands, form the mixture into 12 patties, about 3/4-inch thick. Set aside.
  4. Set up an assembly line to prep the pea cakes. Put the flour into a shallow dish. Then, grab a small bowl for the egg and buttermilk, and beat with a fork to combine. Next, put the bread crumbs into a shallow dish. Coat each cake with flour, then dip into the egg mixture, and pat the cake in bread crumbs. Coat all the cakes, and set them aside.
  5. Set a wire rack over a baking sheet lined with paper towels.
  6. In a skillet over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Working in batches, fry the cakes for 3 minutes on each side or until toasty brown. Place them on the rack to drain and cool. (If your oil gets dark, pour it out, wipe your skillet with a paper towel, and add fresh butter and oil for the remaining cakes.)
  7. Serve the cakes with Comeback Sauce, greens and sliced tomatoes.

Comeback Sauce

Makes 1 pint

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup salad oil
  • 1/4 cup chili sauce
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot paprika
  • 1 small onion, grated
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

In a food processor or blender, combine all the ingredients. Process until smooth. Refrigerate for up to one week.