Mind Your Peas

Have a bad year and wishing for better luck next year? Try eating some black-eyed peas. Black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day are a southern tradition. There seems to be little agreement on how this custom began, though, or why a food as humble as black-eyed peas might be considered lucky.
In some places, black-eyed peas are called “cowpeas” because they were once only used as fodder for the cattle. Some believe the custom of eating black-eyed peas for luck started during the Civil War, when southern troops under siege had to exist on what was available and considered peas lucky because they prevented starvation.
Others believe the custom was started by poor folks who learned to “make do” with whatever food they had available. Some of the creative recipes born out of necessity and poverty were quite delicious, and these “soul foods” became a part of southern culture. Due to scarcity of food in winter, it was considered lucky to have a plentiful supply of peas at the beginning of the New Year.
It may be that the association of luck with black-eyed peas is much older than American history, however, and goes back to times of the past. The first visitor of the New Year in some cultures was thought to determine the luck of a household for the following year. A gentleman considered lucky was invited to accompany “lady luck” and welcomed with a kiss and a bowl of black-eyed pea soup.
It is sometimes alleged that what is done on the first day of a new year will be continued for the entire year. Believing this, it becomes important to eat lucky foods to ensure a good year. In addition to the peas, southerners may eat cooked greens or cabbage, which represent money or prosperity, and cornbread which represents gold.
Black-eyed peas, however, are always fundamental.
In the winter, black-eyed peas are usually found as dried peas that must be soaked overnight in water before cooking. Usually the peas are slow simmered or cooked in a crock-pot on low heat until done. Black-eyed peas are seasoned with salt-pork, jowl, or even the hambone from a country ham.
Southerners have learned not to be wasteful, especially with food. Rice, another lucky food, is added in some regions, along with sausage and tomatoes to make a dish called “Hoppin’ John.”
Black-eyed peas have a distinctive flavor that not everyone appreciates. Some people will not eat them at all, saying that eating black-eyed peas is just a superstition and they don’t believe they bring good luck. Probably most people eat the peas less out of superstition than because it has become a custom ingrained in southern culture.
Outside of the southern states, people sometimes don’t even know what black-eyed peas are. However, they are easy to recognize because each pea has a black spot or “eye” where it detached from the peapod. Southerners eat black-eyed peas year long and just consider them “good eatin.”
My southern mama always made black-eyed peas. I hated them, but choked down a bite or two for luck on New Year’s—just in case. I swore I would never eat another black-eyed pea when I became an adult, lucky or not. However, I have learned to cook frozen black-eyed peas, which taste much fresher and less starchy than the dried ones, and now I almost like them.
Whatever other foods are eaten, black-eyed peas are a comfort food that has become a necessity in the south for welcoming in the New Year. It is often believed that you should eat 365 peas on New Year’s Day to ensure luck for each day of the coming year.
So, here’s wishing you joy and prosperity for the coming year. May you have good health, good fortune, and may your home be as filled with luck as a pot full of black-eyed peas.
Sheila Moss, Humor Columnist

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