By JAY REED
I've never had much reason to go to Mantee.
Though I've driven by it many times on my way north, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped. Not that I had anything against stopping — just never had an occasion to. Until this weekend, I could name just one person who called it home and I met him only by way of his in-laws (who are not from there at all). But now, thanks to the Third Annual Black-Eyed Pea Festival, I know a few more.
Pauline Neal, the coordinator of the day’s black-eyed pea cooking contest, is one of the fine folks from Mantee I met at the festival. She told me that the festival was conceived three years ago by the Silly Whispers shop as a little fund-raiser to benefit the town, then it became an officially-sanctioned Mantee event the next year.
It had a familiar festival look: arts and crafts, live music, an antique car show and food. Not too big, but big enough. Mostly it just felt like a block party for the whole town, and we were made to feel right at home. I had assumed that black-eyed peas had some relation to the area, but I was wrong — somebody in the early days of the festival must have decided it would be a good legume to celebrate, and a tradition was born.
Joe and "Kathy-with-a-K" Johnson did a little celebrating, too, with their first-prize-winning dish of black-eyed peas flavored with smoked sausage and ham hocks. Comfort food for a chilly day.
By the time we got there, the contest had been decided and folks were already trying out the eight different entries. At that late hour, the Johnson’s pot was mostly ham hocks swimming in a shallow pool of peas, which in my view meant I came just at the right time.
One of the reasons I enjoy going to events like this is the better-than-average chance of trying something new, like pig tails. At least that’s what the nice lady told me, and though the pieces were cut too small to determine the degree of curliness, I had no reason to question her. The pig tails served as flavor enhancers for the peas, along with some whole jalapeño peppers. My tongue was thankful that the peppers didn’t wipe out my taste buds and leave me looking for a glass of milk.
A glass of milk would have been pretty good, though, on account of the cornbread varieties that were served alongside the black-eyed pea dishes. One fellow had two kinds on his table, one with cracklin’s and another with bacon on the bottom. The bacon variety was just as it sounded — a piece of cornbread with a lining of bacon underneath. Turn it up and he could have called it bacon upside-down cornbread. Next door they were frying it. Now I knew I was at a street festival. I went back for more of that. Apparently I missed a pan of jalapeno bread due to our late arrival — got to get there earlier next year.
Another semi-spicy dish in the contest was the black-eyed pea jambalaya. This was one of my favorites. The peas added a creamy texture and slightly richer flavor to the usual elements of this Cajun dish. I guess Mantee must have a Cajun contingent, or at least a couple of fellows who just enjoy that kind of food, because next door to the jambalaya was the black-eyed pea gumbo. Good flavor here, too. On the other side of the jambalaya was a pot of black-eyed pea chili, mild when it came to pepper hotness, but bright with tomato flavor. Who says you have to use red beans in chili?
Black-eyed peas did just fine.
On down the row was a dish that must have been pretty popular, since it was about gone by the time we got there. We were told that it was turnip greens and black-eyed peas at the beginning — our cup was mostly thick pot liquor and peas. Either way, it was still good and I’m sure we got all the vitamins.
I thought we had tried everything until I spotted a table with the numbers 7 and 8 taped to it, and two casserole dishes sitting on top, looking a little lonely.
Mrs. Neal thought they might have been a couple of youth entries, but there were no youth nearby.
There were still spoons, and I was still hungry. The first one might have been called a casserole, or it might have been called a dip — it wore no “Hello My Name Is…” sticker, so I just dipped some out and went at it. This one seemed to be a base of Ro-Tel and cheese sauce, with black-eyed peas mixed in. Add that to the myriad of options for Ro-Tel dip. The Wife and I liked it.
The last one we tried truly amazed us.
There was still no one around to explain, and it looked rather like chocolate sauce with pecans floating in it. I assumed it was a dark chili with large chunks of ground beef. Silly me. It was chocolate sauce with pecans floating in it. And black-eyed peas. It took a minute to find one, but it was there, making the entry official.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad.
What I learned from the Third Annual Black-Eyed Pea Festival: One, we now know several nice folks in Mantee, including Mayor Frances Baker, who also welcomed our dog, Blaze.
Two, get there early before the turnip greens are gone.
And three: get milk!
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .