In the southern United States, a New Year is always met with a generous serving of black-eyed peas for good luck.
Actually a bean, the black-eyed pea was first cultivated in western Africa before spreading to Asia, and was and brought to Virginia in the 17th century. The bean quickly became popular in Florida, Georgia, Texas and the Carolinas for its drought-resistant qualities. During the Civil War when Union troops marched through the South and stripped the land of all food, crops and livestock, black-eyed peas were left behind as they were considered “field peas” or animal fodder by the Northerners and therefore not suitable for human consumption. Thus the beans were considered lucky because they kept whole families from starving.
However the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for good luck goes back much further than the history of the U.S. Mentioned in the Talmud, an ancient Babylonian text circa 500 CE, black-eyed peas were eaten on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year: “You should make it a habit to see... black-eyed peas on your table on the New Year.” Jewish immigrants brought black-eyed peas to the American South in the 1730s, and they finally caught on by necessity during the Civil War.
Today black-eyed peas are a symbol of Southern pride and an important ingredient in soul food recipes such as Hoppin’ John and Texas caviar. Signifying abundance and good luck, especially on New Year’s Day, black-eyed peas are usually served alongside cornbread or greens and flavored with pork fat.
Growing up in Texas, I spent many summer evenings on my grandparents’ farm shelling black-eyed peas, discarding the green outer shell for mulch and saving the sweet little beans from their pods. Small, undeveloped pods were called “snaps” and thrown in with the beans for a pretty mix of black-eyed peas and green bean snaps. Although most were eaten fresh in season, we always saved plenty in the freezer for our meal on New Year’s Day.
If you don’t have black-eyed peas fresh off the farm, you can buy dried, frozen or canned varieties in any supermarket. The following recipe uses frozen beans, which come with snaps and cook more quickly, but dried black-eyed peas will also work (you do not have to soak them overnight). Skip the canned beans and save yourself the BPA (and the flatulence). This recipe is simple enough to make even if you have a hangover from the night before!
Black-Eye Peas for New Year’s Day
2 pounds frozen black-eyed peas with snaps (or 1 pound dried)
1 large sweet onion (like Vidalia), chopped
2 T butter
¼ pound salt pork (or 8 strips of bacon)
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt & pepper to taste
In a large stewpot over medium heat, melt the butter and then add your onions and garlic. Cook until translucent, about 7-8 minutes, turning frequently with a spatula.
Add black-eyed peas and cover with filtered water, then bring to a boil on high heat.
Cut your salt pork or bacon into small pieces (kitchen scissors work well for this) and add to the boiling water.
Boil for 3 minutes, then reduce heat to medium and cook for another 40-45 minutes, adding more water if needed. (If you are using dried beans, cook for about 1.5 hours.)
Drain your peas and season with salt and pepper. Serve with cornbread, greens, iced tea, country ham and banana pudding for a traditional Southern New Year’s Day meal. Good luck!