If you sat down to supper with my parents on December 31 around their drop-leaf kitchen table covered with a mustard-colored oil cloth, there’s a one-hundred per cent chance a very large bowl of black-eyed peas would be sitting there, front and center.
Curls of steam rose above the peas which were swimming in the juices of a succulent ham that had cooked on top of the stove for most of the day.
If you’ve ever tasted a black-eyed pea that hasn’t been seasoned with an ample amount of salt, ham, and the grease contained therein, it tastes a little bit like dirt.
No matter how badly you might not want to eat a bowl of black-eyed peas, rest assured that before being excused from my parents’ table, you would eat at least one. Not one bowl. One pea. According to my mother, it wasn’t so much that eating black-eyed peas would bring good luck for the next 364 days, but that not eating at least one might bring bad luck.
My mind is hazy as to when I actually began to like the taste of black-eyed peas. Possibly when I had children of my own and needed to convince them of the importance of eating them. At least one of them.
The complete meal consisted of the black-eyed peas cooked with ham, a fully baked ham, greens of some kind, cornbread, and a dessert. Usually, a banana puddin’. The greens might be anything from turnip greens, to mustard greens, to collard greens, to spinach, or a combination thereof. Polk salad was out-of-season. The greens were also seasoned with copious amounts of grease and topped off with that hot, vinegary juice of pickled peppers. The cornbread was baked in an iron skillet. Mom fried bacon bits in the skillet, and while the pan was still hot, she poured the batter in. It sizzled and browned immediately around the edges.
During the years, it was explained to me by various family members what this meal represented: The peas swell when cooked and symbolize prosperity, the greens symbolize dollar bills, the pork symbolizes a positive motion because pigs root forward when foraging, and the cornbread represents gold.
Whether or not eating black-eyed peas brings good luck for the coming year, or not eating them brings back luck, the memories of sharing this meal with my family brings good memories for years to come.
Black –Eyed Peas with Ham
(serves 6 or a lot more if your guests only eat one pea)
1 pound dry black-eyed peas
1 small ham, cut into chunks
32 ounces chicken or beef broth
1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
4 cups hot water, additional as peas cook
salt to taste
Place peas in colander / Rinse with cool water to remove dirt and stray hulls / Drain well
Place peas in a large stock pot / Cover with hot water / Soak for at least an hour
(Soaking is not necessary, but peas will cook faster. Supposedly, soaking helps to reduce the risk of . . . a-hem . . . digestive upset. . . a euphemism. . . )
Place the ham chunks, chicken broth, and onion in a stewer
Simmer on low heat while peas are soaking
Drain peas, again
Add hot broth, ham, and onion to peas
Add enough hot water to cover peas
Place lid over stockpot and heat over medium high until liquid boils
Reduce heat and simmer for an additional 1 to 2 hours
Add more hot water to keep level just above peas
(Amount of time it takes peas to cook and additional water will be determined if peas were soaked and juiciness of the ham. Amount of salt needed will be determined by ham.)
Overcooking will cause peas to lose their shape
Serve peas and ham with greens and cornbread. And, banana puddin’
Good luck !
The History of Black-Eyed Peas
The black-eyed peas in this story are not to be confused with the American hip-hop group, The Black Eyed Peas. Botanically speaking, these ‘black-eyed peas’ are actually beans, members of the legume family.
It is thought that they originated in North Africa. The peas were a staple of the Roman and Greek diets, and were quite possibly introduced into India over 3.000 years ago.
There are several theories about how they ended up in the New World, but the most common one is that slaves from Africa stowed the seeds in their clothing so that they would have their beloved food in this new land. Another theory is that European and African slave traders arranged for the durable food item to be sold and traded in the New World. Regardless of how black-eyed peas arrived, they became a life-saving staple during the Civil War.
General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea in November of 1864 resulted in all the land from Atlanta towards the Port of Savannah being stripped of food, crops, and livestock. The surviving Southerners were left with nothing . . . except black-eyed peas. In the North, people ate English peas. Only cattle ate black-eyed peas, the reason they are also known as ‘cow peas.’ Union soldiers did not leave the crops as a good-will gesture, they just didn’t know people ate black-eyed peas, so they saw no reason to destroy the crops since they had killed all the livestock.
Black-eyed peas were about the only source of food in the South after the Civil War, and saved thousands from starvation. Because the Southerners saw the crop as giving them a Second Chance, it became a tradition to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck and prosperity.
During the 1900’s, the planting of the crop was promoted by George Washington Carver, the famous African-American chemist. The legume adds nitrogen to the soil and has a high nutritional value.
The black-eyed pea is a widely used ingredient in soul food and many Southern dishes. One of these dishes is called “Hoppin’ John.” There are plenty of stories as to how the dish became known as “Hoppin’ John.” One comes from the ritual where children on New Year’s Day hopped around the table before eating the dish. Another was to invite guests to eat the meal and hope for good luck by saying, “Hop in, John.”
Even in the Babylonian Talmud, there are recordings about ‘good luck’ traditions of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana.
Details of all these ‘black-eyed-pea-stories” differ, but all of them, in some way or another celebrate the communion of family and friends, bound by grateful hearts and renewed hopes for good times ahead.