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Black-eyed peas: a Southern New Years tradition

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By BEN DUDLEYThe Wilson Post

Every self-respecting Southerner knows that on New Year's Day, you have to serve a certain meal.

From grand gala gourmet dinners to small casual gatherings with friends and family, according to Southern folklore, the menu always includes black-eyed peas.

Eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day is thought to bring prosperity in the South. The peas are typically cooked with a pork product for flavoring (such as bacon, ham bones, fatback, or hog jowl), diced onion and served with a hot chili sauce or a pepper-flavored vinegar.

The traditional meal also features collard, turnip, or mustard greens and ham. The peas, since they swell when cooked, symbolize prosperity; the greens symbolize money; the pork, because pigs root forward when foraging, represents positive motion. Cornbread also often accompanies this meal and represents gold.

These "good luck" traditions supposedly date back to the American Civil War. Union troops, especially in areas targeted by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, typically stripped the countryside of all stored food, crops and livestock and destroyed whatever they couldn't carry away. At that time, Northerners considered "field peas" and field corn suitable only for animal fodder and didn't steal or destroy these humble foods.

Nowadays black-eyes are eaten every New Year's Day to bring good luck for the coming year. All the way back to the days of the Pharaoh, black-eyed peas have been a symbol of luck and fortune. The superstition is that those who eat black-eyes, an inexpensive and modest food, show their humility and save themselves from the wrath of the heavens because of the vanity they might have. Black-eyed peas are neither a pea nor a bean. They are actually lentils.

The tradition of eating black-eyed peas for the New Year has evolved into a number of variations and embellishments of the luck and prosperity theme including:

•For the best chance of luck every day in the year ahead, one must eat at least 365 black-eyed peas on New Year's Day.

•Black-eyed peas eaten with stewed tomatoes represent wealth and health.

•In some areas, actual values are assigned with the black-eyed peas representing pennies or up to a dollar each and the greens representing anywhere from $1 to $1,000.•Adding a shiny penny or dime to the pot just before serving is another tradition practiced by some. When served, the person whose bowl contains the penny or dime receives the best luck for the New Year, unless of course, the recipient swallows the coin, which would be a rather unlucky way to start off the year.

The catch to all of these superstitious traditions is that the black-eyed peas are the essential element and eating only the greens without the peas, for example, will not do the trick. The humble black-eyed pea, however, was deemed to be lucky and prosperous long before Gen. Sherman tore through the South.

The "good luck" traditions of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day are recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (compiled around 500 AD), which read in Horayot 12A: "Abaye said, now that you have established that good-luck symbols avail, you should make it a habit to see Qara (bottle gourd), Rubiya (black-eyed peas), Kartei (leeks), Silka (either beets or spinach), and Tamrei (dates) on your table on the New Year." A parallel text in Kritot 5B stated that one should eat these symbols of good luck.

This custom is followed by Sephardi and Israeli Jews to this day. In the United States, the first Sephardi Jews arrived in Georgia in the 1730s and have lived there continuously since. The Jewish practice was apparently adopted by non-Jews around the time of the Civil War.

Black-eyed peas, while eaten in the South for good luck, are eaten all over the world in different forms including:

• Rice and peas is a popular dish in Jamaica and other Caribbean Islands. In the American South, a variation of this dish is called "Hoppin' John soup," made of black-eyed peas cooked with rice and pork.• “Texas Caviar” or black-eyed pea salad, another traditional dish in the American South, is made from black-eyed peas marinated in Italian salad dressing and chopped garlic, and served cold.• In Portugal, black-eyed peas are served with boiled cod and potatoes, with tuna, and in salads.• In Vietnam, black-eyed peas are used in a sweet dessert called chè đậu trắng (black-eyed peas and sticky rice with coconut milk).• In Greece and Cyprus, black-eyed peas are eaten with vegetables, oil, salt and lemon.• In the northern part of Colombia, they are used to prepare a fritter called "buñuelo." The beans are immersed in water for a few hours to loosen their skin and soften the bean. The skins are then removed either by hand or with the help of a manual grinder. Once the skins are removed, the bean is ground or blended and eggs are added which produces a soft mix. The mix is fried in hot oil. It makes a nutritious breakfast meal.• In North India, black-eyed peas are cooked as “daal.”

So as the New Year approaches, be sure to stock up on these lucky little lentils and ring in 2010 with wealth and prosperity for you and all of your loved ones.

Staff Writer Ben Dudley may be contacted at ben@wilsonpost.com.

Editor’s Note: Information for this article came from www.about.com and www.wikipedia.com.

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