Monday, July 2, 2012

A Hot Time In The Old Town, at the Emerson PurpleHull Pea Festival.

Emerson’s getting a reputation, nowadays, for having one of Arkansas’s hottest food festivals. We’re not talking about the spice; we’re talking about pure honest heat in the bottomlands of the state’s Timberland region.

The Emerson PurpleHull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tillar Races take place the last weekend of each June. It’s a weekend filled with all sorts of fun, from pea shelling and pea tasting to dances and fireworks and a parade and so forth. It’s a classic Arkansas festival in its 21st year, and let me tell you what -- it’s a hot place to be, in the sense of it’s a great place to be.

And yes, the temperature these past several years has climbed into the triple digits. I was around back in 2009 for the day, and I enjoyed the celebration of the cookout, watched the shelling competition, observed the tiller racing and dined on a fine Pea Feast. I was looking forward to sharing that celebration again, this time with my daughter Hunter.

Now, Hunter is three (she’ll be sure to point out she’s three and a half, thank you very much) and fair as Snow White. She burns easily and she gets hot, but she’s a real trooper. I decided this year’s event was dependent on her; when she said it was time to go, it’d be time to go.

Still, it wasn’t too bad when we arrived about 9:30 that Saturday morning, ready to check out what was going on in the cafeteria. That’s where this year’s Great PurpleHull Peas and Cornbread Cookoff was set to be held. Joyce Daily was getting about putting the entries in their places on the stage. The scent of hot peas was everywhere -- not just from the entries being brought in by folks but also from the kitchen, where the Pea Feast was being prepared.

Hunter almost immediately won a drawing that she was entered in upon arrival and obtained a set of markers and a pack of colored construction paper, which made her happier than a dead pig in the sunshine. It also gave her something to do while I snapped away photos of all the goodies on the table.

And there were plenty -- big cast iron skillets of golden yellow cornbread, casserole dishes topped with dough with the lovely scent of peaches, bowls of PurpleHull peas already heated and ready to go, some with floats of ham or bacon within. There was even a jar of homemade sweet salsa available right out there.

The nine judges arrived and were announced, and they took no time in getting about the business of judging. This is a serious thing, and each year there’s usually two or three tastings of each of the items entered in the contest, just so the judges are absolutely sure they have chosen the best item.

When they were done, the prizes were announced. We were all quite surprised that no one entered a condiment this year... but that was all right... there were other prizes to be awarded. Best salsa went to Marla Hanson of Emerson. Donnie Griffin of Emerson took the prize for best cobbler. Jane Freppon of Emerson won for best cornbread.

The most original dish went to Don Moore of Anderson, for his Peeznkornbread Muffins... and let me tell you what. He came over and offered about those muffins and I took advantage of that situation. Don made up these sweet corn muffins stuffed with succulently soft cooked PurpleHull Peas -- and they were moist and magnificent. I coulda eaten the tar outta those.

And when it came down to the best dish of PurpleHull peas, well, if you’re from around those parts you know that Linda Miller just can’t be beat. She won the competition when I was there in 2009, and she won it last year, and by golly she won it this year too. How about that?

Well, all this pea judging and shooting had gotten me hungry, and Hunter was clamoring for food, so I went and stood in line and paid my six bucks and got us a plate full of Pea Feast. This is a delicacy served once a year at the festival and several times a year at good dinner tables around the town. It’s a big serving of PurpleHull peas, a square of just sweet enough cornbread, a plopped down bit of peach cobbler and the fixings -- which in this case are a smattering of fresh white onions, fresh jalapeno peppers, home stewed tomatoes and fresh tomato salsa. The salsa in this case is a sweet confection that brings a new level of happiness to the peas.

Not that they need any help. The folks at Emerson really know what they have going on there, and they do the peas right. They come out slightly sweet and hearty, with a satisfying flavor that’ll make any country girl happy. Hunter about fought me over that plate... claiming every bite hers. I could barely get in a bite edgewise!

While we were celebrating the great pea with the feast, the first heat got underway in the pea shelling contest. Don’t call it shucking -- that’s what you do to corn. In the under 12 competition, three young’uns got up on the stage with their moms and took off popping open those pods. This young one seemed to enjoy eating just about everything she got... which meant she didn’t have any peas to tally up when she got done, but that was all right.

There were two competitors in the teenage division, daughters of two of Emerson’s most pea-tacular families... gosh, I’m doing it now!... and then the adult heats began. Three different heats commenced one right after the other. Each contestant gathered up as many pea-pods as they thought they could shell in a few minutes’ time into a big bowl and took a seat on the stage. When the start was called, the music began and the pods went a-flying as nimble fingers made quick work of the peas.

There was a bit of a media frenzy when Doeleta Weaver Rome took to the stage -- she holds the record for the most peas shelled in the competition, with more than 17 ounces in one sitting. That’s more than a pound!

Now, Hunter was just giddy as could be to be there, and I was glad she was getting into the festivities. At one point she handed me an unshelled PurpleHull pod, and I took it and shelled it for her. She tried a few peas, and boy you could not imagine how she took to that. She appeared with another, and another... and finally I realized she was stealing pea pods right off the stage during the heats. My child!

The competition was fierce but happy. In the end, the winners were announced. Barbara Glover took third place with 5.5 ounces... Doeleta Rome second with 7.4 ounces... and the winner was Marla Hanson, who managed to shell 8.1 ounces in a manner of minutes.

With the cooking and the shelling over, Hunter and I went out on the grounds to inspect what was going on. We discovered a local farmer who was selling unshelled peas straight out of the garden from the back of a truck, along with ears of corn, tomatoes and zucchini. We took home a zucchini as big as my forearm for later grilling. Another farmer had fresh shelled peas, and from that stand I got a whole gallon of PurpleHull peas for $15 -- and I didn’t have to purple my thumbs for it.

We sampled some of the local fare -- which included homemade ice cream, funnel cakes, hot dogs, nachos, fried green tomatoes, meat pies and something called Geauxsicles -- one of which we obtained for sampling. The one we had was called a Lemondrop. It was a blend of sugar, buttermilk, lemon juice and zest and who knows what else. It was good. We sat on the grass with Hunter’s parasol for shade and enjoyed every bit of it.

It wasn’t long before we heard the sirens sounding... and here came the Million Tiller Parade. Though there aren’t actually a million tillers in the parade, it’s a great old-fashioned parade where the locals get in their cars and trucks and on motorbikes and tillers and tractors and horseback and share their pride in their hometown. I love parades like that.

In addition to the tillers, there were tractors -- antique tractors that are carefully maintained and shown off each year at this festival. I love the tractors. So does Hunter.

Afterwards she got her time in the bouncy house, and we bought an inflatable pony from one of the vendors. And then she looked up at me and told me “Mamma, it’s really hot. I’m hot.” And I knew it was time to go. As much as I love seeing those tillers race, it was time to find the air conditioning.

The temperature when we left was 102 degrees... which turned out to be a little cooler than Little Rock that day. Hey, it’s so much fun, you should try it yourself next year. Be prepared to bring yourself some water and a lawn chair to watch the races, and be sure to come hungry for that Pea Feast.

Check out updates on all that happened at the official event website.

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