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Friday, January 1, 2016

Black Eyed Peas - A New Year's Tradition In Dixie

There is a largely Southern tradition that the first food to be eaten on New Year's Day should be a big plate of black-eyed peas, turnip or collard greens, pork, and cornbread.

Black-eyed peas are perhaps the most well-known New Year’s Day dish in the South, with a long and very interesting story, one that ties in beautifully with how all our shared traditions tie into our living Southern heritage.

The origins of the the black-eyed pea itself dates back to prehistoric times. Black-eyed peas are technically beans rather than actual peas, and are believed to have been domesticated in Africa about 2,000 BC in ancient Egypt. During the time of the Pharaohs, it was believed that eating a meager food like black-eyed peas showed humility before the gods, and you would be blessed. The beans have also been recorded to have been cultivated in China and India since pre-historic times and were eaten by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The beans reached the Americas via the International Slave Trade aboard slave ships where the beans were utilized as food for the enslaved passengers. Early records from around 1674 indicate that black-eyed peas were transported from West Africa to the West Indies by slaves. The earliest records of black-eyed peas being planted in American colonial times dates back to the early 1700s in the Lowcountry coastal regions of the Carolinas and Georgia. 

Black-eyed pea plants were often planted along the border of fields to enrich the soil with nitrogen. Cattle could also graze on the plant stem and vine, leading to the alternative names of field peas and cow peas for the plant.

Since the American Southland has generally always been the place for farming, black-eyed peas are a good thing to celebrate with in the winter. Not many crops grow this time of the year, but black-eyed peas hold up well, were cheap and just make sense.

Black-eyed peas were also given to African slaves as food, as were most other traditional New Year's foods: hog jowls, turnip greens and cornbread. Another addition to the story says that black-eyed peas were all the Southern slaves had to celebrate with on the first day of January, 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. This is said to be the reason that black-eyed peas were always eaten on the first day of January.

The tradition of consuming black-eyed peas in honor of the New Year may also be tied to Jewish culture. The Talmud lists the small white bean as a food to be eaten during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for good fortune. Like the ancient Egyptians, their traditional belief was similar: those who ate black-eyes showed their humility and saved themselves from the wrath of God. When Jewish people arrived in the American South in the early 18th century, their culture and traditions likely mingled with those of African slaves and other colonial residents to spread the practice of eating black-eyed peas in celebration of the New Year.

The most modern story of the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas as the first meal on New Year's Day is generally believed to date back the winter of 1864 - 1865 during the later part of the War Between The States (American Civil War). 

When Union General William T. Sherman led his invading troops on their destructive march through Georgia, the fields of black-eyed peas were largely left untouched because they were deemed fit only for animals. The Union foragers took everything but the peas and the salted pork. Black-eyed peas were first planted as food for livestock, and a common staple for black slaves - black-eyed peas origins can in fact be traced back to the African continent. As a result, the humble yet nourishing black-eyed pea saved surviving Southerners - mainly women, children and the disabled veterans of the Confederate army - from mass starvation
and were thereafter regarded as a symbol of good luck. 

The peas are said to represent good fortune. Certainly the starving Southern families and soldier were fortunate to have those meager supplies. 

According to the tradition and folklore, the peas are served with several other dishes that symbolically represent good fortune, wealth and prosperity in the coming year. Some folks - like my grandpa Billy - still traditionally cook the black-eyed peas with a silver dime in the pot as a symbol of good fortune.  

Greens represent wealth and paper money, as they're flag and green like US currency. Any greens will do, but in the South the most popular are collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, and boiled cabbage. 

Cornbread - a regular staple mean among Southerners in absence of wheat - symbolizes gold and is very good for soaking up the juice from the greens on the plate.

Pork symbolizes bountiful prosperity and the progressing into the year ahead since pigs move forward using their snout to root for food. Ham and hog jowls are typical with the New Year meal, though sometimes bacon will work too. 

Stewed tomatoes are often eaten with this meal as well. They represent health and wealth. 

Some folks also believe that according to the tradition you must eat approximately 365 black-eyed peas to assure good fortune throughout the year (I suppose an extra for leap years like 2016). If you eat less you will only be lucky so many days. But if you eat more than 365 peas the days those extra beans symbolize will turn to bad luck. Some say you should leave one pea on your plate, to share your luck with someone else (more of the humbleness that peas seems to represent). Some say if you don't eat every pea on your plate, your luck will be bad; or that if you eat only the black-eyed peas and skip the pork, collard greens, and the accompaniments, then the luck won't stick. They all work together or not at all.

So reflect on those stories when you sit down at your family table and enjoy this humble uniquely Southern meal every New Years Day. 

"Mmmmm....now that's some good eatin right there!"

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article50282930.html#storylink=cpy


  1. Great post Carl, have a happy and prosperous New Year !

  2. Nice, John. Made me hungry! I do love our Southern traditions.