If you’re planning on celebrating the New Year anywhere in the Southeastern part of the United States, more than likely you will be eating black-eyed peas of some sort, either just after midnight or sometime on New Year’s Day.
Most Southerners will tell you they are eaten for good luck and prosperity during the coming new year, and there are also certain foods that accompany the lowly “field Beans.” They are best eaten with a mess of collard or turnip greens, seasoned with a bit of fatback, although ham hocks in the beans themselves are great, too. And you’ve got to have corn bread on the side with plenty of butter.
Even more interesting is the reasons behind why the black-eyed pea became so popular as a “good-luck” food to be eaten on the first day of the new year. There are actually a couple stories to choose from, and we’ll look at these and let the reader decide which one they like best.
Black-eyed peas were first domesticated in West Africa, and made their way to Asia. They also were introduced into the Southern U.S. as early as the 17th century in Virginia, being grown as a fodder for livestock. They soon found use in feeding the growing slave population.
The bean took hold in the south, doing well in the hot and humid climate and soon spread through the Carolina’s and down into Florida. By the end of the Civil War, the black-eyed pea was a major source of food and fodder. George Washington Carver had a hand in promoting it’s growth because of it’s agricultural and nutritional value.
It was the Black-eyed pea that probably saved the southern people from starvation during the Civil War, after being overrun by Union troops. General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” was accomplished by his troops burning and stripping the fields of any food crops and livestock they could carry away. People were left to starve.
Field corn and field beans were considered fodder for the animals, and not touched. Little did the northern troops know that the precious black-eyed pea was edible. Because of this, the bean took on greater importance in the eyes of the southerners left to make do with what little was left for them.
The tradition of eating black-eyed peas for good luck goes back much further than our own humble history. 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.”
Sephadic Jewish immigrants brought black-eyed peas to Georgia in the 1730s, and following the traditions as set forth in their laws, ate the black-eyed peas during Rosh Hashana. This custom is followed by Sephardi and Israeli Jews to this day, although pork in not included as it is against the dietary laws of the Talmud.
Again, during the Civil War, other southerners took to eating the bean, out of necessity because there was little else to eat. Soon, because of the cultural influence of African Americans in the south, collards, turnip greens and ham hocks were added, as well as corn bread.
Just think about how totally American eating black-eyed peas for the New Year really is. Whether you subscribe to the idea that it was Jewish tradition or African beginnings, or the circumstances of a devastated land during the Civil War, we started the whole idea here, in the United States and made it our tradition.
Happy New Year, and may good luck and prosperity be yours for the whole of the year. Think about all the positive things to come as you dig into a mess of collards, black-eyed peas and corn bread next week.