The holidays are over and we can pause to remember the funny things that happened in all of the rush. Gifts forgotten in a closet, presents mislabeled, disasters in the kitchen, including small fires — well you get the picture.
On New Year’s Day the morning includes parades and the afternoon is filled with endless football. Most southerners manage to work in a more formal lunch or dinner which must include black-eyed peas.
Eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day is thought to be an old southern tradition that promises prosperity and good luck in the coming year. So it was with more than a little surprise that I learned 18 years ago that my Canadian wife is an adamant black-eyed pea eater — on New Year’s Day. To say she has embraced this bit of the Old South would be an understatement. Our daughters, one on each coast, have introduced the tradition to their friends. There is a movement underway far and wide.
While southerners would like to claim exclusive ownership of this tradition, they are actually late to the game. It seems that black-eyed peas were not introduced into the U.S. until the 17th century. Virginia was the center of the U.S. black-eye pea universe. In the 18th century their popularity spread and soon the Carolinas, Florida and Texas were all vying to be major producers.
But before you are tempted to claim this as only a good old southern tradition, be aware that the good luck/prosperity part of the pea legend extends to 500 CE (Common or Christian era) when, during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the faithful consumed black-eyed peas for…you guessed it, good luck and prosperity, according to the Babylonian Talmud. Other traditions of importance extend to the Civil War when Union soldiers, under the command of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, pillaged southern lands stealing stored food, confiscating livestock and other crops — taking everything of value. What they could not carry off they destroyed, except for the lowly black-eyed pea crops. The soldiers viewed the peas as nothing more than animal fodder and left them alone. Apparently they did not know their Babylonia Talmud.
Today, black-eyed peas are at the heart of soul food and other forms of southern cuisine. A typical old south meal will include black-eyed peas, collard, turnip or mustard greens, ham and corn bread. The peas swell when they are cooked, so they symbolize prosperity, the greens represent money and the pork symbolizes positive motion since a pig is known to root “forward” when foraging.
So much for the history and symbolism.
I don’t know about you, but our New Year’s Day was busy — I had some work to complete before conference calls on Thursday — then we were off to the movies and later a family dinner with our sons at Mr. Mesero, a great little Mexican restaurant in the Knox area of Dallas. Later in the evening — much later (hint: it was still New Year’s Day but not by much) — my wife realized that black-eyed peas had not been consumed in the Self household. So, as the clock wound down, I found myself in the kitchen heating canned black-eyed peas (she likes the tradition, not necessarily the pea, and would not begin to do a scratch batch).
Today, for my wife, all is right in the world. Now maybe I will root around for a winning lottery ticket.