Whether you take your black-eyed peas in hoppin' John, cooked with hog jowl or
just served up with a big dollop of chowchow, chances are you've been eating
them on New Year's Day for as long as you've lived in the South. It's as
traditional as iced tea at Sunday dinner.
The humble pea has been farmed in the South for centuries, likely since field cultivation began in this young country. It's widely assumed that African slaves introduced the black-eyed pea to the New World, but the pea has an interesting history that predates America.
In Italy, Annibale Carracci's 1584 painting Mangiatore di Fagioli depicts a farmer sitting down to eat a big bowl of black-eyed peas, chunk of bread in one hand and spring onions ready at the other.
But by the 16th century, black-eyed peas were old hat. The Babylonian Talmud, written about 1,500 years ago, says that lubiya is one of the foods that should be consumed for its symbolic value at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
"The Talmud actually mentions that it's a good idea to eat food for good luck," said Rabbi Joel Finklestein of Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Congregation in East Memphis.
He explained that Sephardi Jews are of Spanish and Portuguese descent. They settled in areas of the Mediterranean after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century. Unlike their Northern European cousins, who were stuck eating foods such as apples, honey and perhaps carrots at Rosh Hashana, the Sephardi had access to a year-round growing season. A pot of peas was cooked for good luck, for greater merit, for an increase in fortune.
Finklestein said that the early Jewish settlers in America went to New York, to Charleston, S.C. and to Savannah, Ga. Did they bring with them the custom of consuming black-eyed peas for good luck on the New Year?
Some say yes, and others attribute the beginning of the tradition in the South to the Civil War. This version goes that General Sherman spared the field peas during his devastating march to the sea because the "cow peas" (another name for black-eyed peas) were only for livestock and not worth destroying. The nutrient-rich pea provided sustenance for the local people, and thus they were good luck.
Kevin Sullivan of Ki Kitchen in Memphis just knows the peas have been lucky for him. The cook at Tsunami, who caters on the side, started selling his black-eyed pea hummus last year at the Tsunami Winter Market (held 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays in the parking lot next to the restaurant at 928 S. Cooper).
"It's been great luck for me," he said. "It's gotten me more gigs, and it's gotten me up on Saturday mornings, and that's definitely good."
There are many ways to serve them, but in the South, black-eyed peas are typically cooked with pork, because the pig is an animal that roots forward ("We don't do that part," Finklestein said), symbolizing progress. Some say the peas represent coins and eat them for luck with money in the coming year; others say the cabbage or greens typically served with the peas are the real money. The peas instead represent "many," so a bowl of them offers a chance at much good fortune in the coming year. Chowchow, made with cabbage, can heighten your chances of prosperity -- and give your peas a boost of flavor, too. The cornbread often served on the side can represent humility, or more money, as it's the color of gold -- or it can be eaten just because it tastes mighty good.
Susan Schadt, president of ArtsMemphis and a Southern Tastes panelist, knows the value good cornbread adds to black-eyed peas. In the '90s, she lived in Del Mar, Calif., where another Southerner, Ben Goodwin, bragged often about his black-eyed peas. This led to the annual "Pea-Off" on New Year's.
Schadt wrote: "For many years the 'Pea-Off' was the highlight of the New Year. I recollect that I won most, hands down. The secret -- lots of bacon grease in a cast iron corn stick pan, warmed to bubbling, filled to brim with corn meal mix and baked to golden brown. Ben always thought it was the peas."
Ben Brock, co-owner of Amerigo and another Southern Tastes panelist, puts a spin on his pot of peas in an all-or-nothing chance at luck. Clean pennies from the birth year of each guest are added to the peas. If a guest gets a penny with the correct birth year, then they get all the luck.
Southern Tastes panelist Ryan Trimm of Sweet Grass and Sweet Grass Next Door makes a version of Hoppin' John with a twist. He renders Benton's bacon and cooks collard greens, black eyed peas, and the leftover ham bone from Christmas in a pot of stock.
"I leave it on my stove all day for family to come by and enjoy," he said.
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