Happy New Year, Y’All!
In the American South, it is tradition on New Year’s Day to partake of a very simple meal promised to bring good luck and fortune in the new year. Failure to eat the prescribed foods is said to bring bad or very limited luck, as well. The foods include black eyed peas, collards, hog jowl, and cornbread. I’m sure this doesn’t sound particularly appetizing to the uninitiated. Perhaps heirloom legumes, tender heirloom Acephala leaves, heritage smoked pork might be more appealing? “A rose by any other name….”
Regardless of what you call them, generations of Southerners have enjoyed these dishes on New’s Day and throughout the winter months because the peas could be dried for use after the growing season ended, hogs were prepared for the smoke house in late fall, and collards are a winter crop. Practical issues aside, stories abound regarding how this tradition arose.
The most plausible legend of greens and peas representing good fortune and prosperity centers on American Civil War General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea. It is known that Sherman set a policy of total war in order to subdue not only Confederate soldiers, but a hostile and recalcitrant civilian population as well. His troops took all food stores and destroyed all crops in the fields, but may have left the humble black-eyed peas believing them inedible animal fodder not fit for human consumption. Georgians felt “lucky” to have peas during the lean years at the end of the war and during Reconstruction. There is also belief that eating black-eyed peas for luck could have come with Jewish immigrants to the New World.
…black-eyed peas also have a little-known ancient history as a good-luck tradition that started not in Africa, but with a list of five foods mentioned in the Jewish Talmud to eat on Rosh Hashanah (the new year) to ensure good fortune. Black-eyed peas are not on this list, but fenugreek seeds are, explains historian Gil Marks in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. The Talmud refers to fenugreek seeds as rubia, which sounds like yirbu, meaning “to increase.” Sephardim confused that with lubia, the word for black-eyed peas, and they began incorporating black-eyed peas into their new year’s good-luck spread. Some sources say that Sephardic Jewish colonists introduced this custom to the American South (Jews settled in Georgia as early as 1733).
Black-eyed peas, which were first domesticated in Africa 5,000 years ago, were thought to have made their initial arrival in North America though slave ships, predating the arrival of Jews in the colonies. And Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is usually celebrated in September. So it seems unlikely that the Talmud alone was the spark of the black-eyed pea’s associations with fortune in the South, especially when the food became so prominent in the diets of slaves—and, eventually, their masters.
However the tradition began, my mother always said that on New Year’s Day we ate black-eyed peas to bring silver and collards to bring greenbacks in the new year. Southerners who eat yellow cornbread may also say that the bread will bring gold. Being strict devotees of white cornmeal, we paid no attention to the gold aspect of the legend. Despite their seeming simplicity, there are a few important secrets to preparing this quintessential Southern meal.
If using dried peas, they should be soaked before actual cooking begins. Some say they should soak several hours or even overnight with several changes of cold water. Newer methods suggest soaking in a hot water bath for 60-90 minutes. Once soaked, change out the water, add salt pork, hog jowl, or cubed ham and salt to taste and cook for at least an hour or until tender. Peas make a hearty, healthy addition to any meal.
As to collards, I was always told by older family members, excellent gardeners and cooks one and all, that collards should not be cut for cooking until after the first frost. Something about the cold was supposed to sweeten the flesh of the leaves and make them tender. Of course, the time of planting may have had just as much to do with the quality of the plants. At any rate, old collards are tough and have a bitter taste. In our urbanized and hurried world, young, tender collards are difficult to guarantee. When cooking collards, it is always best to follow the rule of sweet and savory: most things sweet need a dash of salt and many things savory need a pinch of sugar to balance and bring out best flavors. With collards, a pinch of sugar is an essential practice to counteract any bitterness that may be lingering in the greens. The cooking method is simple. Place salt pork in a hot pan and fry for a few minutes. Next add the collards, salt to taste, add a pinch of sugar, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, and reduce heat. Cook under tender. Serve with pepper sauce for added flavor. While I suppose one could use Tabasco brand sauce, traditional Southern pepper sauce for use on greens is made with tiny, hot peppers, salt, white vinegar – nothing else. The peppers should be tightly packed and the liquid should be clear. Trappey’s makes an excellent commercial variety.
Bon Appetite! Linda’s Travel’s through Historical Fiction will resume on January 22, 2016 with a visit to Cornwall. Definitely on my bucket list!!
Wishing you and yours health, wealth, and happiness in 2016 and beyond!
The History Imagined Team
- http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/12/good-luck-food-new-year-pork-sauerkraut-lentil-herring-collards-hoppin-john.html, accessed 12/26/2015.