Why We Eat Black-Eyed Peas on New Year's Day

Southern Traditions

Bowl of hoppin' john
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Do you know why black-eyed peas are lucky on New Year's Day? As with most superstitions, there are several answers to the question. Typically, the belief that black-eyed peas are a lucky New Year's meal is especially popular in the south, so it has to do with our history, right? Maybe.

Most Southerners will tell you that it dates back to the Civil War. Black-eyed peas were considered animal food (like purple hull peas).

The peas were not worthy of 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 became symbolic of luck.

Black-eyed peas were also given to slaves, as were most other traditional New Year's foods. Let's face it: a lot of the stuff we eat on New Year's is soul food. One explanation of the superstition says that black-eyed peas were all the southern slaves 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, peas were always eaten on the first day of January.

Others say that since the south has generally always been the place for farming, black-eyed peas are just a good thing to celebrate with in the winter.

Not many crops grow this time of the year, but black-eyed peas hold up well, were cheap and just make sense.

The oldest explanation for this tradition I found is on Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia, the tradition dates as far ancient Egypt. During the time of the Pharaohs, it was believed that eating a meager food like black-eyed peas showed humility before the gods, and you would be blessed.

According to Wikipedia, the Babylonian Talmud, which dates to 339 CE, instructs the faithful Jews to eat black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana. The belief was similar: those who ate black-eyes showed their humility and saved themselves from the wrath of God.

How do you eat the peas? My family always argues over this. Some people believe you should cook them with a new dime or penny, or add it 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 any less, you'll only be lucky for that many days. I guess on leap years, you need to eat an extra one. If you eat any more than 365 peas, it turns those extra days into bad luck. Some say you should leave one pea on your plate, to share your luck with someone else (more of the humbleness that peas seems to represent). Some 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 black peas, and skip the pork, collard greens and the accompaniments, the luck won't stick. They all work together or not at all.

I probably need to explain what a hog jowl is. Some Yankees 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.

The south isn't the only place that eats pork on New Year's Day. All over the world people are using marzipan pigs to decorate their tables, partaking in pig's feet, pork sausage, roast suckling pig or pork dumplings. We're just the only ones who put so much faith in the jowl cut.

Hogs and pigs have long been a symbol of prosperity and gluttony. It's why we say someone is "being a pig" when they take more than their share. 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 other poor 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? The short answer is that we eat cured pork because it's winter time.

Hog jowl is a cured product which stores well for long periods. During the winter, cured pork would be one meat that would be accessible. Check out page 1 for more information on winter in the south.

Plus, it goes well with black-eyed peas and collard greens. It's a good thing the people who made these superstitions up didn't come up with something like snails, cornbread and black-eyed peas. I don't think it would have caught on.

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.

Want to get rich? Here in the south, collard greens and corn bread bring the money on on New Year's Day.

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." I wonder why we don't eat it on New Year's Eve? Eating collard greens isn't too far off from Caesar and Aristotle. The ancient cabbage those guys ate was probably closer to kale than our modern cabbage.

Collard greens (or any greens) sub for cabbage in the south because that's what we grow here in the late fall. The southern tradition: each bite of greens you eat is worth $1,000 in the upcoming year.

Corn bread represents pocket money or spending money. It's another soul food we eat on New Year's. The tradition stems from the color of the bread.

It's color represented "gold" or "coin" money. Plus, it goes well with collard greens, peas and pork.