The passing of Texas native Rip Torn on Wednesday, brings to mind a dust covered tale involving his father and Athens' longstanding black-eyed pea heritage.
Columnist Charley Eckhardt, spilled the beans about Elmore Torn Sr. a few years ago in one of his musings on the states' lore and legends. It seems Elmore, who gave Jr. his world famous nickname Rip, was an agriculturalist hired by the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce in 1947 to get the word out about its attributes.
In the post-war years, the county didn't have a lot going for it economically. In fact the population dwindled from about 32,000 in 1940 to around 22,000 in 1960.
But black-eyed peas were something the county had in abundance. The problem was, there weren't many people eating them. Torn, Eckhardt wrote, decided to promote the idea that serving the peas on New Year's Day brought good luck. In fact, he claimed, it was a longstanding Southern tradition to do so.
Torn wrote a pamphlet, which the Chamber distributed far and wide, embellishing on the black-eyed pea holiday tradition. He went so far as to write that General Robert E. Lee himself had a healthy plate of peas to greet the New Year. Never mind that Lee's luck could have been better about 1865.
Eckhardt's column said Torn sent the pamphlet and a can of peas to every food editor in the South. They arrived just after Thanksgiving, allowing the editors ample time to stir interest in the legume and provide the impetus for them to show up on many a dinner table when the calendar flipped to 1948.
Torn would repeat the process for several years, by which time the black-eyed pea was a holiday tradition like mistletoe and holly.
And, by then, Athens was on its way to becoming the "Black-eyed Pea Capitol of the World."
As for Rip, he might have followed in his father's footsteps as an agriculturalist, having attended Texas A&M with designs on becoming a rancher. Instead, he discovered an acting talent that took him far from the canneries and cattle of East Texas.