Planning starts in November. While others are procuring turkey, pumpkin, minces, sweet potatoes and French’s Crispy Fried Onions, I am in the frozen food aisle picking out frozen peas. Typically I go with black eyed peas, but this year, on the recommendation of a friend from Alabama, I went with purple hull peas. Supposedly the hull peas are creamier, smoother and more delicious than their cousins. I prefer frozen to dried and both to the abomination of canned. I will not finalize my recipe selection until the urge strikes in late December, but I will have my New Year’s Day field peas waiting in the freezer.
Googling black eyed peas leads me to believe that the Southern tradition of a New Year’s Day meal with simple crowder peas and greens or cabbage has gone nationwide. I also found some interesting mythology. In too many articles from reputable news sources I read variations of a story that traces the tradition of this meal back to Sherman’s Civil War March to the Sea. The often repeated tale of the “yankee arsonist” has a General who lived in Louisiana before the war leaving silos full of black eyed peas because he considered them food for animals. The snubbed peas became a symbol of good fortune because the Southerners felt lucky to have them to eat during reconstruction. I immediately called bull dookie on this “myth of the Lost Cause.” As a Kentuckian I know that Sherman did not burn a damn thing there, a moving army would also need horse feed and there were Kentuckians in my family tree marching with him who would have know all about those cowpeas.
Hoppin’ John recipes are also abundant and given as an example a Southern tradition for the New Year. West Africans were brought to the South Carolina low country as slaves to work the rice fields. Hoppin’ John was a meal slaves made to remind them of home.
At one time Kentucky was the frontier. While there were large farms with slaves, there were also many Scotch Irish settlers who were subsistence farmers trying to raise corn on limestone dotted hillsides and fields. Varieties of cowpeas were planted to be dried for winter. Pigs could also eat corn and field peas. I have heard that pigs ate the remains of the corn mash that was used to make Kentucky’s most famous product, but that is another story.
Though the beans/peas originally came from North Africa, the grew wild across Europe. Medieval peasants ate beans in their daily stew. It makes sense that field peas would remind the hardscrabble Kentucky farmers of home and/or heritage.
I have often joked that I have limestone in my blood. With my ancestry it makes sense that I would crave a meal of peas/beans, pork and cornbread.
Each year I make a version of what I call “Get Lucky” soup. Last year’s version was based on Ina Garten’s minestrone soup recipe with substitutions of black eyed peas and kale. The pork was in the bacon grease used to make cornbread in a cast iron skillet. This year I was gifted a couple of slices of salty country ham that will be used to season my purple hull peas along with onion and celery. I’m planning to add some Rotel tomatoes and frozen collard green to the soup. There will be cornbread.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever not had black eyed peas, pork, greens or cabbage and cornbread on New Year’s Day. Do they bring luck? I don’t know, but this is a tradition I choose to keep. Part of it is heritage.
Some years are harder than others, but January 1 is a chance to celebrate the opportunity to dream new possibilities. Maybe the luck is in the completion, the surviving of the fates in the old year.
May the fates smile on us in 2021.