How Cowboy Caviar Became a Staple Cookout Side

Roy Pope Grocery shares a recipe perfect for summer BBQs and parties.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Cowboy caviar is not fish roe pulled from Texas sturgeon. Nor is it a fun trick to play on unsuspecting tourists, like Rocky Mountain oysters. Instead, it’s an easygoing salad (or a dip, depending who you ask) that starts with black-eyed peas and may also contain black beans, corn, bell peppers, onions, and other assorted veggies and herbs. It’s light, fresh and usually tossed in vinaigrette dressing. And, in one of the more unlikely origin stories, this Texas staple begins with a dietitian from New York.

Born in Upstate New York, Helen Corbitt moved to Austin in 1940 to work at the University of Texas. Her career took her to the Houston Country Club, Austin’s Driskill Hotel, and eventually to Neiman Marcus, the famed Dallas department store, where she served as head chef at the Zodiac Room restaurant. As the story goes, Corbitt invented the dish shortly after arriving in Texas, when she was asked to create a menu featuring Texas products.

Corbitt’s original recipe was simple: black-eyed peas, onions, and garlic pickled in oil and vinegar and served cold. It proved so popular that it followed her to the Driskill Hotel, where it was dubbed “Texas Caviar,” and eventually to Neiman Marcus, where it was canned and sold in stores. Over the years, the recipe was tweaked to include additional ingredients, including black beans, corn, and bell peppers.

Corbitt would go on to win culinary awards, write cookbooks, and serve as Texas’s own Julia Child-type figure, changing that way the state ate. But it’s her black-eyed pea salad that has endured over all these decades since its first graced Texas plates in the ’40s.

If you’re the superstitious type, you can eat cowboy caviar on New Year’s Day to ensure an auspicious year ahead. But there’s no reason to wait that long, especially as we find ourselves in the midst of picnic season and nearing the start of football watch parties and tailgates.

“Cowboy caviar is a quintessential Texas dish, especially as black-eyed peas are a staple Texas crop and grown all over East Texas and across the Lone Star State,” says Chef Edward Gutierrez of Roy Pope Grocery in Fort Worth. Part of its appeal, he adds, is that the dish is easy to make and allows you to experiment with ingredients, putting your own stamp on the recipe.

Roy Pope Grocery was first opened in 1943, and hadn’t shut its doors until the COVID-19 pandemic. After an 18-month closure, it was revamped and re-opened in May with a shiny new cafe, a sommelier-led beverage program, a coffee bar, and even more Texas-made specialty items lining its shelves. According to Gutierrez, cowboy caviar (simply called “Black-Eyed Pea Salad” at Roy Pope) is one of its most popular dishes.

“The fun part about cowboy caviar is that it’s both a salad and a dip,” says Gutierrez, noting that its versatility makes it a perfect party food, whether you’re serving it alongside smoked meat or as a dip with crispy tortilla chips.

Despite its Texas roots, cowboy caviar extends beyond state borders. National grocery chain Trader Joe’s sells cowboy caviar “salsa” in a jar. Churchill Downs executive chef David Danielson makes a black-eyed pea and corn salsa for the Kentucky Derby each year. The famous Nashville hot chicken restaurant, Hattie B’s, serves a black-eyed pea salad with bell peppers tossed in a vinaigrette. And the humble dish is a staple at summer cookouts around the country, regardless of which moniker it goes by.

Roy Pope’s recipe features the obligatory black-eyed peas, plus black beans and fresh corn cut straight from the cob. Chopped white onion and red and green bell peppers lend crunch, while cilantro adds some Mexican flair.

“The vinaigrette is the key component that blends all of the flavors together,” Gutierrez says. He adds a touch of garlic, lime, and chili powder to the dressing, which gives the dish a tangy accent that “makes it impossible to put down.”

Roy Pope Grocery cowboy caviar
Roy Pope Grocery

Roy Pope Grocery’s Black-Eyed Pea Salad Recipe

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

Salad

  • 2 cups black-eyed peas, dried or canned
  • 1 cup black beans, dried or canned
  • 1 cup corn, fresh or canned
  • ⅓ cup chopped green bell pepper
  • ¼ cup chopped red bell pepper
  • 3 Tablespoons chopped white onion
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped cilantro

Vinaigrette

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2-3 Tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons granulated garlic
  • Sea salt to taste

Directions:
1. If you have the time to use dried peas and beans, cook them from scratch. If using canned peas and beans, rinse and drain them well. If using fresh corn, roast or grill it. If using canned corn, rinse and drain it.
2. Combine all the salad ingredients in a large bowl.
3. Whisk together vinaigrette ingredients and toss with the salad. Enjoy!

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Kevin Gray is a freelance writer and editor covering all things food, drinks, and travel. He’s written for The Dallas Morning News, Forbes, Liquor.com, Men’s Health, and Wine Enthusiast, and his extensive home bar is turning into a real Hoarders situation.