Do you know why it's good luck to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day? As with most superstitions, there are several answers to the question.
Most Southerners will tell you that this culinary custom dates back to the Civil War. Black-eyed peas were considered animal food. The peas were not deemed worthy of serving to General Sherman's Union troops. When Union soldiers raided the Confederates' food supplies, legend says they took everything except the peas and salted pork. The Confederates considered themselves lucky to be left with those meager supplies, and survived the winter. Peas then became symbolic of luck.
Black-eyed peas were also given to enslaved people, as were most other traditional southern New Year's foods and evolved through the years to be considered "soul food." One variation of the superstition says that black-eyed peas were all the enslaved people in the South had to celebrate with on the first day of January 1863. What were they celebrating? That was the day when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. From then on, black-eyed peas were always eaten on the first day of January.
Others say that since farming has always been important in the South, black-eyed peas are available and are a good food to celebrate in the winter. Not many crops grow this time of the year, but black-eyed peas stored well, were cheap, and it all just made sense.
How Do You Eat the Peas?
There are many traditions related to serving and eating black-eyed peas. Some people believe you should cook them with a new dime or penny, or add a coin to the pot before serving. The person who receives the coin in their portion will be extra lucky.
Some say you should eat exactly 365 peas on New Year's Day. If you eat fewer, you'll only be lucky for that many days (perhaps on leap years, you need to eat an extra one). However, if you eat any more than 365 peas, it turns those extra days into bad luck.
Others say you should leave one pea on your plate, to share your luck with someone else (more of the humbleness that peas seem to represent). Yet others say if you don't eat every pea on your plate, your luck will be bad.
It's also said that if you eat only peas, and skip the pork, collard greens, and the accompaniments, the luck won't stick. They all work together or not at all.
Hog Jowl on New Year's Day
You may be wondering what hog jowl is as some have never heard of this cut of pork. It's the "cheek" of the hog. It tastes and cooks similar to thick-cut bacon. It's a tough cut that is typically smoked and cured. Hog jowl is used to season beans and peas, or fried and eaten like bacon.
On New Year's Day, hog jowls are traditionally eaten in the South to ensure health, prosperity, and progress. Southerners aren't the only ones who eat pork on New Year's Day. All over the world, people have porcine traditions such as using marzipan pigs to decorate their tables, partaking in pig's feet, pork sausage, roast suckling pig, or pork dumplings.
Hogs and pigs have long been a symbol of prosperity and gluttony. It's why someone who takes more than their share is "being a pig." Some cultures believe that the bigger pig you eat on New Year's, the bigger your wallet will be in the coming year. So, the "fatter" the pig, the "fatter" your wallet. Spit and pit-roasted pigs are popular New Year's meals.
In the South and some other areas, pigs were considered symbolic of both health and wealth, because families could eat for the entire winter on the fatty meat one pig produced. Having pork could mean the difference between life and death in a really cold winter.
Pigs have also long symbolized progress. A pig can't turn his head to look back without turning completely around, so it's believed that pigs are always looking to the future. They fit in perfectly with other New Year's celebrations.
Why hog jowls? They're a cured meat product that stores well for long periods of time. Before refrigeration, cured beef and pork would be very popular in the winter. The tradition of eating the cured hog jowls has persisted and become a part of a New Year's feast. Plus, pork goes well with black-eyed peas and collard greens.
How do you cook hog jowl for New Year's? Some people only use the jowl to season their black-eyed peas and collard greens. Most in the South would say that's not enough to make you prosperous. You also have to partake in some fried hog jowl. It's cooked similar to bacon, but hog jowl is a bit tougher and takes a little longer to cook.
Jowl typically comes in a package, sliced like thick bacon or uncut on the "rind." Most people remove the rind, slice it, and fry the slices in a skillet, like bacon, until brown on both sides. It's then drained on a paper towel and served. Since it's a cured food, it typically doesn't need extra salt, but some like to serve it with pepper or hot sauce.
Collard Greens on New Year's Day
Want to get rich? In the south, collard greens and cornbread eaten on New Year's Day ensure that money will be in your future.
It's actually cabbage that is king green around most of the world for New Year's meals. Cabbage is a late crop and would be available this time of year. Collard greens are a late crop too, but they are mostly grown in the South. Traditionally, cabbage was picked and turned into sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, a fermented product, would just be ready to eat around New Year's Day.
Cabbage and collard greens both represent "green" money in New Year's tradition, but, historically, cabbage was eaten for health benefits. Cabbage was eaten by everyone from Caesar to the Egyptians to aid in digestion and for nutrition, later for the prevention of scurvy. Aristotle, the philosopher, ate cabbage before drinking alcohol to keep the wine "from fuddling his prudent academic head." Eating collard greens isn't too far off from traditions of the days of Caesar and Aristotle. The ancient cabbage they ate was probably closer to kale than modern cabbage.
Collard greens (or any greens) substitute for cabbage in the South because it's plentiful in the late fall. The southern tradition holds that each bite of greens you eat is worth $1,000 in the upcoming year.
Cornbread represents pocket money or spending money. It's another soul food eaten on New Year's. The tradition stems from the color of the bread. Its color represented "gold" or "coin" money. Plus, cornbread goes well with collard greens, black-eyed peas, and pork.