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Uncle Clif’s Purple Hull Peas: An Heirloom Story

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

If Clifton A. Morehart had ever gotten the hankering to move to Colorado, it’s likely he’d have chosen The Garden Spot, Berthoud. You see, he was a gardener through and through.

Gardening wasn’t just his hobby, it was a way to put food on the table, a way to be in tune with the earth, weather, living things. It was his physical therapy, he’d say, and that’s no joke! Uncle Clifton (aka Clif) was born in Mabelvale, Arkansas, on a farm, in 1924. As one of 12 children, farm life was hard work for Clif and his siblings, gardens were a necessity and you walked to school 3 miles, uphill both ways, but only after morning chores were finished. There is no wonder he grew to be a hard worker who genuinely enjoyed sowing and reaping and working the earth. It’s one of a few activities where you get to LITERALLY enjoy the fruits of your labor.

We could never name everything Clif grew, but the big favorites, year in and year out, were tomatoes, corn, peppers, watermelon, and purple hull peas. Purple hull peas. Ah, you don’t have a good southern vegetable soup without purple hull peas. You don’t have a good southern meat and potatoes Sunday dinner without a side of purple hull peas. (Or okra…that’s another southern staple.) Purple hull peas aren’t like zucchini, though. You don’t just plant a seed or two once, then BAM a few weeks later you get hundreds of pounds of produce from that little effort. You want to succession plant peas so you get them coming ready a little at a time, because purple hull peas once they are ready, have to be shelled. And no one has the time, desire or probably physical stamina in your finger muscles to shell 3 bushels of purple hull peas all at once. If Clif had a nickel for every hour he spent shelling peas in his life, he could buy a house, I bet. But yum, yum, yum…so worth the effort. Cooked in soup, where the starch in the pea thickens the broth nicely, or sautéed in butter with bacon (my favorite), the purple hull pea is a true delight of Southern cuisine.

Uncle Clif passed on a year ago this August. He was a man of God and church, and his loved ones find comfort knowing he’s with our Lord. He was working in his garden the day before his stroke. He was 94. I think the garden kept him youthful and healthy, as he was most definitely those things. But his mind! He remembered EVERYTHING. Every person, family, event…he was the family chronicle in the flesh.

Two years ago, on a HOT July afternoon in Arkansas, my two daughters (grudgingly, I’m sure, as the heat and humidity in Arkansas July really is a force to be reckoned with) went with their Grandma (Clif’s baby sister) over to Uncle Clif’s and helped harvest purple hull peas. They might have gotten half a bushel that day, and we all sat on the front porch of my mom’s house and shared in the shelling. Mom saved a baggie of those peas, and sent them out here to me, in Berthoud Colorado this spring, and I planted them. And do you know what happened? Uncle Clifton smiled down on my little garden and those purple hull peas grew. He probably said something like, “Well, I’ll be…”.

Purple hull peas. I can’t wait to get them in a pan with some bacon and butter! We planted some in the Berthoud Local Community Garden at Pioneer Park, (in the Fickel Farm/Mary’s Farm neighborhoods) if you want to see them for yourself. Don’t pick them ‘til they’re good and purple, though.

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