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Torn dearly loved his black-eyed peas

July 13, 2013 at 11 p.m.


Elmore Torn was Longview's ambassador for black-eyed peas in the 1930s and 1940s. The agricultural wizard convinced lots of Americans to consume the "good luck" legumes on New Year's Day.

Torn, the father of actor/1948 Longview High grad "Rip" Torn, was born in 1906 and attended school at Taylor, Williamson County. He graduated from Texas A&M, got into farming and soon was in demand as an agricultural expert.

He was hired in 1937 as agriculture and forestry director of the Longview-based East Texas Chamber of Commerce. Torn worked to develop soil, water, timber, cotton and livestock resources in the Piney Woods.

<em style="bold">Long tradition</em>

Also in 1937, Torn began his campaign for black-eyed pea consumption. The peas had been "the poor man's food for centuries," he said.

Southerners had been eating black-eyed peas since at least the Civil War. Over time tradition called for the pea (a subspecies of the cowpea) to be eaten on Jan. 1 to bring good luck in the new year.

Torn said he'd experienced his first black-eyed pea dish on a South Carolina plantation in 1928. It was served as a "corn pone and pig jowl" dessert after a sweet potato-and-possum meal.

The inexpensive peas were a "short crop," taking only three months to grow. "Anyone can produce it," he said. "It grows almost anywhere."

During the late 1930s, Torn hosted several "black-eyed pea parties" in the U.S. Senate dining room in Washington, D.C., extolling the pea's virtues to any lawmaker who would listen.

In 1943, Torn left the East Texas chamber and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He spent two years helping restore the ravaged agricultural economy in Europe. At war's end he came back to the U.S. with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He returned to the East Texas Chamber of Commerce, then took a position with the Texas Chemurgical Council. Torn later became a vice president with Transcontinental Pipeline Co. After retiring from the firm in 1967 he returned to Taylor.

A 1946 Texas newspaper article noted Torn had "sent choice packages (of peas) to Winston Churchill, who wrote back he enjoyed them; to President (Franklin) Roosevelt, Kate Smith and Rose Bowl football teams until one lost and blackened the name of the black-eyed pea."

Starting in World War II, Torn had traveled around the world teaching people in hungry, under-developed countries to grow new crops, including black-eyed peas.

One of the nations he traveled to in the 1960s was South Vietnam where he lived in leper colonies because, he said, "these places are avoided by the Viet Cong."

Torn told of several narrow escapes while in South Vietnam. One time his leper friends placed him in a crude coffin to get him past a Viet Cong roadblock. A suspicious VC officer thrust a sharp stick through the flimsy coffin, stabbing Torn in the stomach. The Texan kept quiet through the pain and the Viet Cong let the leper procession pass by.

Torn evidently was a visionary. In a 1948 interview with the Corpus Christi Caller Times he said, "Too many people are too fat. They eat more food than they need. That's one of the reasons for so many cases of heart trouble, diabetes and other ailments that beset humanity."

Marshall Plan

By the way, in March 1948, Torn famously went on a "grass diet" to show his support for the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan.

Torn stayed on his dehydrated grass-table, 200-calories-a-day diet for 45 days, urging U.S. Congress to approve the financial aid to rebuild the war-ravaged economy of Western Europe. Congress OK'd the plan in April.

Elmore Torn died in April 1971 at age 64 and is buried in Taylor City cemetery in Williamson County.

At his death, the Longview Morning Journal noted, "Torn did more than any other man to promote the ritual of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck."

- Van "Cowpea" Craddock's newest book is "Longview," a postcard history of the city. His email is vancraddock@sbcglobal.net.

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