Charleston residents and visitors filled the city park Saturday afternoon to enjoy local history, homegrown food, and a good time with friends at the International Cowpea Festival and Cook-off.
“Welcome to the first annual Cowpea Festival,” Charleston City Mayor Walter Goode said. “Give yourself a hand! This festival is the first of many to come ... Again I say, welcome, welcome, welcome, and thank you.”
Festivities began with the “Princess and the Cowpea” Natural Beauty Pageant, sponsored by Meagher & Meagher Furniture and Jamison Bedding. Maggie Price was dubbed Miss Cowpea. She is the daughter of Mitchell and Tabitha Price of Benton.
Tents and food vendors dotted the park’s field. A stage sat on the far side with hay bales for seats. More than 25 crafters showed their wares as onlookers ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed.’ Professional chefs battled to win the crowd’s favor across the creek.
Musical guests from young to old took the stage to share their time and songs. Viewers watched in clumps while sitting on hay bales and relaxing in the shade. Sue Goode, the mayor’s wife, began the performances followed by Demetrius Ramsey. A continual flow of musical guests culminated with Grammy-award winner Suzy Bogguss’ performance.
“The festival is fantastic. Right now it is a runaway cowpea train,” laughed Melissa Woody, a chief organizer of the festival. “I’ve been receiving great comments. The mayor of Charleston is thrilled. He is happy and that makes me happy, of course. What we want to do is grow this festival into something that is an attractor to visitors.”
Goode said the festival received a great turnout from the public.
“Everything has been fantastic. It has been a great day and it is going to get better,” Goode said. “There has been a tremendous turnout. I have spoken with people all the way from Ooltewah.”
Both Goode and Woody are thankful Bush decided to join as the primary sponsor for the event.
“We are so excited to have Bush’s Beans as apart of the festival,” Woody said. “They have been the big talk today. People are amazed a credible and national company like Bush would be here to sponsor the festival.”
Goode hopes the company will come back next year with even more sponsors. Charleston’s mayor also pointed out the professional chefs cooking up a “cowpea storm.” The five tents were clearly visible by the long, winding lines of tasters waiting their turn.
Five hundred wooden Bush’s Beans spoons were sold to those interested in judging the cowpea recipes. The “judges” received samples of each recipe and a ticket stub.
Peter Spinks, Keith Byars, Eric Elkins, Richmond Flowers and Kathy Keller cooked head-to-head to win the crowd’s favor. Tasters deposited their ticket stub into a box labeled with their favorite recipe’s number.
“My recipe is country ham black-eyed pea soup with collard greens,” Keller said. “It is a chicken broth based soup with garlic and onions.”
The onsite professional cook-off was made possible by Whirlpool Corporation, which brought five gas ranges to be used by the chefs for their culinary creations.
Flowers, head of the culinary arts department at Bradley Central High School, had a constant line. He said some of BCHS’s students volunteered to help out with the festival.
One such student was Christian Guy. The Bradley student said he recently began taking the culinary arts class at school.
“I wanted to help because one of these days I want to be a cook, as well,” Guy said as he passed out samples of Elkin’s cheese-and-bean based dip. “I love to cook and see people eat the food.”
Elkins seemed calm under the stress of the competition. He described his cheesy-jalapeno-bacon and black-eyed pea dip as smooth and creamy.
“It just popped into my head,” Elkins said. “When Melissa called me and told me it had to be in one serving, I was trying to think what people could taste in one serving. Dip came to my mind.”
He reported the cooking was going well so far and he was receiving a good reception by the crowd.
Byars, from the Catch Bar and Grill, appeared to feel the same way. He emphasized the use of fresh ingredients in his Crowder Pea Chicken Chili.
“We broke down the spices that are in chili. Instead of using chili powder, we are using store bought seasonings [peppers, onions, etc.],” Byars said. “...The crowder peas seem to be the most stable. I did not know how long I would have to slow simmer the beans. I wanted something that was really stable that I could cook for a long time without it turning into mush.”
Each chef gave their own spin on the recipes showcased in the cook-off. Spinks described his creation, Purple Hull Bruschetta, as a mixture of country and Italian.
“I am an executive chef at Cafe Roma Italian Restaurant, so I wanted to cross Italian with peas and do it a little country,” Spinks said. “It is kind of my own twist on beans and cornbread.”
Festival organizers announced Flowers as the winner of the professional chef cook-off.
Flowers used diced red and green peppers, onion, bacon, and chicken stock to tease the taste buds of the “judges.” He set off each sample with a piece of shrimp.
An additional competition occurred between amateur chefs. The amateur cook-off included three categories: appetizer, entree, and international flair. Prizes were awarded for first and second place.
Parents and children hunted through the food offered by various vendors. Mayfield Ice Cream set up shop to the delight of festival goers. Giant potato chips spiralled over plates and ice teas were used to battle the heat. Each vendor promised respite and refreshment with lemonade, fried apple pie, barbecue or Italian ice among others.
A large portion of the Charleston City Park was left alone to be filled by viewers for Bogguss’ show.
A complete list of winners will be released as it becomes available.