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Pea Knucklin' Good Time

The town of Emerson in South Arkansas celebrates the PurpleHull Pea in June.
by Kat Robinson of Tie Dye Travels

Emerson’s PurpleHull Pea Festival isn’t just about food and community, it has a lot to do with motorpower and sheer chutzpah. I got down there last June, leaving the house at oh-dark-thirty to drive on down through Sheridan and Fordyce and Camden and Magnolia to get there around 10 that Saturday morning. Right on the highway in Emerson it didn’t look like much, but after I turned and headed west toward the high school, traffic picked up.

I parked on the other side of the gymnasium and walked to the church where the Great PurpleHull Pea and Cornbread Cook-off was being held. While the judging had just about concluded, I had come at a great time for sampling. As the winners were announced and trophies handed out, I eyed easily a dozen different cornbreads, varying in color from white to brown to brilliant yellow, each with its own shape in a dish or piled on a plate. Nearly a dozen dishes of traditional PurpleHull Peas were out on the end, and on the other end less traditional dishes, like PurpleHull Pea Chili, PurpleHull Pea Salsa, PurpleHull Pea Zucchini Bread, PurpleHull Pea-Mole Dip and, no it couldn’t be, PurpleHull Peach cobbler.

Plates were dished out for everyone to take and enjoy. Linda Miller and Bill Samples, winners in the PurpleHull Pea and Cornbread categories, posed for pictures. And it was getting on about time for one of the two star attractions, the grand PurpleHull Pea Dinner. A crowd walked back up to the school and headed for the combined cafeteria-auditorium, where the first round of the shelling competition had begun. The kids were slitting the end of a PurpleHull peapod at one end and sliding their thumbs down to release the peas. There’s an art to it – and either you’re taught when you’re a child or you try desperately to catch up. While I had many purple thumbs back in my single digit years, I wasn’t about to go embarrass myself in the competition.

I headed for the kitchen with my $6 for a PurpleHull Pea meal. And as I waited, the ladies working the cafeteria line carefully loaded up each plate with a hunk of cornbread, a generous serving of peas and a mess of peach cobbler (minus the peas) . They asked each person going through if they’d like some ‘mater and onion with it (the correct answer is yes). There was a hunk of butter on the end of the counter, and around the back was some peppers if you liked. And you got a beverage – tea, sweet tea or Kool-Aid. After getting my plate and drink I weaved back through the crowd to find a single seat on a cafeteria-style table.

What a meal … no meat at all, just the savory sweetness of the peas accompanied by stringent fresh onions, juicy just-picked tomatoes and that slightly sweet cornbread. The peppers were all right with it, but I found that just sopping up some pea juice with a little cornbread was all I really needed.

Lunch over and the shell-off just about done, people started packing up and heading outside. This particular weekend in June straddled the 100-degree mark, so a slow pilgrimage started toward a field down the road, with people bringing their chairs and umbrellas along. Fortunately, there was a local group selling homemade ice cream. They’d made up a bunch in advance and stored it in pitchers, but it was melting so fast that what you got was a drink that resembled a shake.

Why in the world would all of us sit out in the heat? Well, everyone wants a good seat for the tiller races. That’s right – Emerson’s not just home to the festival, but also to the World Championship Rotary Tiller Races. It’s something between a roller derby and a car wreck, but you can’t take your eyes away. The first round was the ladies’ competition, and there were just two racing this year. The crowd surged from under sunshades and umbrellas and crowded at the fence surrounding the makeshift tiller track, hundreds of people breathing and sweating with anticipation.

There was some prep work, and then suddenly the burst of gunfire and they were off! Halfway down the lane, one of the two ladies wiped out in a huge shower of dirt and dust. There was a moment of silence that gripped the hollering crowd, but the woman stood up, threw up her thumbs and there was a roar. It was all in good fun, and other than her pride and a few scrapes she was fine.

Unfortunately, the whole affair ended with the first race. The wipeout killed one of the two tillers for competition, leaving little to do but try to fix it. While the crowd waited, a couple got married out on the track, and a gentleman showed off his tiny rail engine tiller.

I was tired and had a long drive ahead of me, but I had a belly full of peas.

The Emerson PurpleHull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race is coming up this weekend, June 25-26. On Friday, Pea Lunch will be served at 11:30 a.m., Mr. and Mrs. PurpleHull Pea crowned at 2 p.m. and a fireworks show at 9 p.m. Saturday, tiller races start at 9 a.m., pea meals served at 11 a.m., the Tiller Parade at 1 p.m., shelling competition at 2 p.m., cornbread cookoff at 3 p.m. and drawing for the Pea Quilt at 5:30 p.m. The festival ends that evening with a Pea Stompin’ Street Dance. Check the website for the full schedule. Emerson is located six miles north of the Louisiana state line on Highway 79, and the festival is held on the grounds of Emerson High School.

Kat Robinson writes the blog Tie Dye Travels about those unusual things that don’t make the news. Tie Dye Travels chronicles ordinary people and the extraordinary things they do. And it’s about the little wonders you can find in the world around you. Kat loves to listen, and there’s nothing better than sharing a good story. Send suggestions to [email protected].

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