Texas’s cowboy caviar is part of a rich bean salad legacy

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When I was 12 or 13, we drove 15 hours from Chicago to Dallas to visit my mom’s brothers and sisters and my cousins. The only bright spots on that interminable trip were the restaurants we ate at along the way.

At some point, a few hours outside of Dallas, we stopped at a small storefront selling sandwiches and salads. I can’t remember everything we ordered, but I do remember one plastic container of beans, corn, tomatoes, onions and peppers. It was labeled Texas Caviar, and I was almost mesmerized by the textures and flavors. I remember hoping I could snag the last bite of it. (I did!) That Texas caviar was the first bean salad I remember eating, but it would not be the last.

Get the recipe: Cowboy Caviar

The recipe for what is also commonly known as cowboy caviar is credited to the prolific chef Helen Corbitt. Some sources say the born-and-bred New Yorker moved to Austin in 1931; others say it was in 1940. Either way, by 1955 she had been hired by then-Neiman Marcus president Stanley Marcus to run the retailer’s in-house restaurant, the Zodiac Room. Corbitt’s tenacity and creativity made the Zodiac Room a destination. Celebrities such as Charlton Heston, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Bob Hope dined frequently at her tables. In “The Best From Helen Corbitt’s Kitchens,” a posthumous cookbook and biography, editor Patty Vineyard MacDonald wrote that Corbitt often took inspiration from her travels within the United States and abroad. Marcus would later call Corbitt “the Balenciaga of Food.”

In addition to recipes such as poppy seed dressing (which she served over fruit salad), flowerpots (baked Alaskas made in small clay pots and decorated with blooming flowers) and snowballs (frosted cake bites rolled in flaked coconut), Corbitt’s legacy includes Texas caviar, originally a simple cold salad of black-eyed peas marinated in a vinegary dressing. “Admittedly not a fan of the legumes, Corbitt decided to mask their flavor by pickling them with garlic and onions, to great success,” wrote the editors of Texas Monthly in “The Big Texas Cookbook.”

I’m not discounting Corbitt’s inventiveness or success, but as I read more and more about Texas caviar, I kept thinking about how similar the recipe is to other, older dishes. South of Texas’s border, Mexican ensaladas de frijoles are almost identical to modern versions of cowboy caviar, which is now sometimes made with black beans in addition to black-eyed peas.

Then, I remembered that black-eyed peas are indigenous to West Africa. They were brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, who were experts at cultivating, harvesting and cooking them. It didn’t take me long to discover recipes for saladu nebbe, a cold bean salad of black-eyed peas (nebbe or niebe in Wolof), diced vegetables and herbs in an acidic dressing. “I would posit that saladu nebbe is a dish that has always existed,” Thérèse Nelson, chef and founder of Black Culinary History, told me. “Black-eyed peas have been a staple of Senegalese food, West African food for centuries. It’s one of those simple salads … that is an amalgamation of available ingredients. It’s like pico de gallo, it’s like a refreshing palate cleanser for rich, deep stews.”

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Ever since my first taste of that Texas caviar outside of Dallas, bean salads have been a favorite of mine. Inspired by these similar recipes from Texas, Mexico and West Africa, I mixed together this version of Cowboy Caviar. It features fresh corn, blistered in a hot cast-iron skillet — though you could also do this on a grill. I knew I wanted there to be a lot of garlic, red onion and chile, for heat, in the dressing, which is made with red wine vinegar and olive oil. In addition to black-eyed peas, I added black beans because I like how they look tossed together with the other ingredients. Diced tomato and basil add a finishing fresh note.

But like all recipes, think of this one as a starting point. Don’t like tomatoes? Skip them. Not into garlic? Omit it. Want a more classic Corbitt-style Texas caviar? Use only black-eyed peas and lots of garlicky red wine vinaigrette. No matter how you make it, it’s a dish fit for a potluck or party — and makes a great dinner, with tortilla chips on the side.

Get the recipe: Cowboy Caviar