Black-eyed Peas: Harbingers of Doom (plus recipes)

Kathleen Rice Adams header

Did everyone have a merry Christmas? Good, because a new year is on the horizon. No red-blooded southerner can let New Year’s Day pass without complaining about honoring one of the most reviled respected traditions of the day.

So let’s get it over with.

No one in the American South escapes childhood without becoming painfully aware black-eyed peas are a mandatory part of the New Year’s Day meal. I say “painfully” because I would rather eat dirt than the black-eyed peas grown in it — and I’m not alone in that sentiment. Nevertheless, no matter what else is on the New Year’s Day menu, the cook had better sneak black-eyed peas into the mix somewhere or the whole year will head straight for hell on the handbasket express.

black-eyed peas

Notice the pure evil in those little black eyes.

Native to Africa, black-eyed peas reportedly migrated to Virginia in the late seventeenth century. Not until after the American Revolution did anyone take them seriously, but that didn’t stop the little connivers from worming their way southward and westward with settlers. The scoundrels proved incredibly hardy, darn them, and soon were well entrenched in fields hither and yon, biding their time until the moment was right to spring onto some unsuspecting family’s table.

According to legend, that moment occurred in early 1864 as General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union troops ran roughshod over every square inch of ground from Atlanta to the sea. As if the situation weren’t dire enough for the Confederacy, the Yankees “confiscated” (read “stole”) every edible scrap they could get their hands on, leaving behind only things they considered livestock feed: black-eyed peas, greens, and corn. For Lord only knows what reason, they also left the salt pork, although they made off with every other kind of meat they could scavenge.

Little did Sherman and his men know that by abandoning the black-eyed peas, they abandoned an excellent source of calcium, folate, protein, fiber, and vitamin A, among other nutrients. (That is the only nice thing I will ever say about the vile vegetable.)

cornbread

Here — look at the pretty picture of cornbread. It’ll settle your stomach.

Thankful the Yankees left anything in their wake, white southerners learned to consume food slaves and po’ folks had eaten for generations: black-eyed peas, greens, salt pork, and cornbread. Those staples helped southerners survive the winter. When New Year’s Day 1865 rolled around, they were delighted to find themselves still alive. The same could not be said for their palates, if the black-eyed pea custom is any indication.

Thus, a tradition was born, dang it.

According to southern lore, black-eyed peas, greens, pork, and cornbread each symbolize a hope for the future (or a reminder of the “just shut up and eat it” principle):

  • Black-eyed peas are for prosperity, because they swell when cooked. Some also say the peas represent coins. Folks who want to get technical about their prosperity eat one pea for each day of the coming year, although for the life of me I can’t figure out who has the patience to count out 365 black-eyed peas per serving.
  • Greens (collard, turnip, or mustard) bring money, because they’re the color of dollar bills. In addition to eating cooked greens, some folks hang uncooked stalks from the ceiling in order to attract prosperity. To my way of thinking, that habit just means one more thing to dust.
  • Pork symbolizes forward progress, because pigs root forward when they forage.
  • Cornbread symbolizes gold. It also does an excellent job of soaking up pot likker — the liquid left after greens are cooked — which is considered a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. In addition, if you crumble enough cornbread into a serving of black-eyed peas, you’ll never know the peas are there.

There’s a trick an art to preparing inedible irresistible black-eyed peas: Disguise their flavor and texture with a whole mess of other ingredients. If you feel compelled to adopt or continue a tradition passed down to today’s southerners by ancestors with a sadistic streak, my recipe is below. (A word to the wise: I cook by taste, not necessarily by recipe. The one dish I don’t taste while it cooks? Black-eyed peas. I prefer to conserve my appetite for dinner, in the fervent hope the disgusting delicious peas will have been devoured — or mysteriously disappeared — by the time I get to the table.)

 

A Pot of Good Stuff with a Couple of Black-eyed Peas Thrown in So I’m Not Singlehandedly Responsible for the End of Civilization as We Know it

Black-eyedPeas4 or 5 slices of bacon
1 large onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 cups fresh or frozen black-eyed peas
3 lbs. smoked ham hock, a large, meaty ham bone, or an enormous slab of ham (The more meat, the less chance a black-eyed pea will creep into your portion, so go…ahem…hog wild.)
½ tsp. kosher or sea salt (or to taste)
Ground black pepper to taste
¼ tsp. allspice
1 Tbsp. Tabasco or other hot-pepper sauce (use more or less, to taste — I use about half a bottle)
4 cups chicken stock
Additional chicken stock or water, as necessary

In a large stock pot, fry bacon until crisp. Remove and set aside.

Sauté onion, celery, and garlic in bacon drippings until tender.

Add remainder of ingredients, plus crumbled bacon, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 30 mins. to 1 hour, adding liquid as necessary to keep peas covered, until tender. (There’s a fine line between tender and mushy. For me, that line is before the peas are in the pot. You’ll have to determine the texture you prefer on your own.)

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No one has to force me to eat collard or turnip greens on New Year’s Day. I’ve always enjoyed them. (Psst: The secret to great greens is vinegar, but you didn’t hear that from me.)

Always serve greens with black-eyed peas. Always, because this is where finesse comes into play: If you ladle greens on top of the black-eyed peas, you can eat your fill of greens and then push away from the table, pat your stomach, and announce “I can’t eat another bite!” before you’ve reached the detestable delectable peas hidden underneath.

 

Collard, Turnip, or Mustard Greens with Salt Pork

CollardGreens2 pounds (about two large bunches) fresh greens
4 or 5 slices of bacon
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tomatoes, chopped
5 cups water
1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 piece salt pork, sliced, or 2 meaty ham hocks (or both)
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and ground black pepper to taste

Thoroughly wash leaves and remove any woody stalks and center veins. (Small stems and veins are okay.) Tear leaves into large pieces or cut into strips.

In a large stock pot, fry bacon until crisp. Remove and set aside.

Sauté onion and garlic in bacon drippings until tender.

Add tomatoes and meat, plus the crumbled bacon. Pour in water and vinegar and bring to a simmer. Add greens, tamping them down so the water covers them.

Cover and simmer until tender — about 1½ to 3 hours, depending on type of greens. Turnip and collard greens require 1½ to 2 hours; mustard greens may take as long as three hours.

Do you celebrate New Year’s Day with any traditions? I’d love to hear about them. If nothing else, I’d find it comforting to know people in other parts of the world don’t start each new year dreading dinner.

Here’s to a fantastic 2016, y’all! May all of us enjoy health, happiness, and prosperity whether or not we eat black-eyed peas.  🙂

Kathleen Rice Adams
A Texan to the bone, award-winning author Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen's tales, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.

Visit her at the Hole in the Web Gang's hideout, KathleenRiceAdams.com. Or, connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Her Amazon author page is here.

28 Comments

  1. YT, you’re somethin’, you must know that, don’t you? Personally, I’m not very fond of peas or beans or lentils… aside from the “normal” green peas and those red ones we find in chilis. Thanks for a good laugh and… hmmm, the recipes (minus the black eyed peas that is).
    Happy Early New Year, mon amie.

  2. Kathleen,

    Growing up, my Arkansas native parents ate (and served) black-eyed peas at every opportunity. Mom canned them so we had a year round supply. The secret to enjoying them was eating the peas topped with Mom’s home-made green tomatoe chow-chow. I would eat newspaper with her chow-chow.

    1. Ooh! Chow-chow. I haven’t eaten that in years, but it’s sooooo good. You’re right: Chow-chow makes everything better. (Wonder how many people know what it is… 😉 )

      1. I’ll bite. What’s chow-chow?

        1. Chow-chow is a sweet relish made with green tomatoes, carrots, hot or mild peppers, onions, and whatever other vegetables the cook wants to throw in. I’ve seen it with peas and cabbage, too. My mom’s always had a hot-sweet tang. It’s better than pickle relish any day.

  3. If you think black-eyed peas is devil food, get this: My parents were born and raised in Pennsylvania, so naturally, they had those Pennsylvania Dutch traditions from the north central part of the state. So, we had roast pork, potatoes (usually mashed potatoes) and–sour kraut. If you think black eyed peas are awful, well, I’d rather eat those peas mixed in dirt than eat sour kraut. And yet, you know how this goes–ya gotta eat some of it or be excommunicated from the family.
    Loved your post, Kathleen. Like your wonderful stories, it had truth and history mixed with a nice dose of humor.

  4. Interesting post, Kathleen. I happen to love black-eyed peas and eat them quite often. And since they’re supposed to bring good luck…..well, that adds to the allure. I leave nothing to chance when it comes to that. I certainly didn’t know they came to us from Africa. Wow! And I, for one, know what chow-chow is. My mom used to make it by the gallons.

    Wishing you a Happy New Year and much success, my fellow Texan!

    1. Linda, I’m afraid NOT to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. I need all the luck I can get! 😀 You know, if the Yankees had been less greedy, none of this would’ve happened. Dang Yankees.

      My best wishes to you in the new year, my friend. I know your success will continue. 🙂

  5. My mom being from Amish Country in Pennsylvania, had never eaten black-eyed peas till she moved to Texas after marrying an oil man. They were pig food up there. They did become part of our tradition though with sauerkraut and pork (instead of greens) and mashed potatoes.She added hot dogs in there for us kids. I thought it was nasty then but love it now!

    1. I’ve always hoped I’d grow to like black-eyed peas, at least a little bit, but evidently that was not to be. **sigh** Sauerkraut, on the other hand? Yum! It’s especially good with Polish sausage, served on a bun like a hot dog.

      Except for black-eyed peas and chitlins, a lot of what people in the South consider staple fare today came from slave recipes. Because slaves weren’t considered “real people,” they weren’t given real food. Consequently, they made do with all kinds of things their owners were too persnickety to touch. Cornbread, okra, and greens are three of my favorites. Many foods considered trendy these days came from slave tables: chicken wings and potato skins, among others.

      Slavery was a horrible, horrible institution. There’s a certain irony in the journey recipes born of deprivation have made.

  6. I actually don’t mind the peas, but hate the greens. What can I say, I’m only half southern,so I eat the peas and use green beans in the mix. Sigh. Doris

    1. I’m going to pretend you didn’t just reveal that shameful secret, Doris. 😉

  7. Thanks for the history on this tradition. I never heard of eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s Day as I was growing up in San Diego, California, me being a transplant from Utah. When I moved to the Central Valley of California where I found I was rubbing shoulders with a lot of Dust Bowl transplants and their descendants, including a number of Texans (I ended up marrying a first generation Okie-Arkie descendant who has a lot of family in the Texarkana region), I found myself besieged each year with inquiries about whether or not I was going to serve this traditional New Year’s meal. I’d just blink my eyes and say no, having no idea where this meal tradition came from. My husband does like chili made with ham, which I am happy to accommodate since we usually have a ham bone left from Christmas, but I usually use pinto beans or 16 bean mix sans the greens. Somehow, I have survived all these years without following the black-eyed peas tradition. Hopefully, my luck holds. Thanks for the recipes, just in case.

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

    1. You’ve never had to eat black-eyed peas, yet you’ve enjoyed prosperity. Why am I tortured with them annually on the chance I MIGHT enjoy prosperity? This is so unfair.

      I wish you many, many more years of success, my friend. 🙂

  8. I grew up eating Corned Beef and Cabbage on New Years day (Mom was from Colorado and Dad from Ohio). We continued the tradition even after moving to Georgia — only occasionally mixing in the black eyed peas. I moved to Texas 24 years ago and was introduced to Texas Caviar – black eyed peas, peppers (bell and jalapeno), onions marinated with vinegar, salt and pepper; must be eaten with tortilla chips. 😉 We vary the details of New Year’s menu especially since my husband is a fan of neither black eyed peas nor corned beef. We manage to work in the traditions somehow though. 🙂

    1. I’ve never eaten Texas caviar, but like hoppin’ John, it sounds better than what my family has always prepared. I may have to try Texas caviar this year. It couldn’t be any worse than the norm around here, right? 😀

  9. My ex mother-in-law insisted on everyone eat black eyed peas on New Year’s day. I never liked them but managed to get a few down to keep her happy. I don’t have any new year traditions.

    1. That’s my approach, too, Janine: Eat a few, just to be safe. 😉

      I hope you have a wonderful 2016! 🙂

  10. I fell asleep when I commented the other night/morning. Must have forgotten to hit post.
    Anyway, I am one of those dreaded Yankees. I don’t believe I have ever eaten black-eyed peas. I will say they have never appealed. As for collard greens, not a favorite. They have too strong a taste. My husbands mother was from Georgia, so he grew up eating many southern dishes and greens are a favorite. We northerners like swiss chard and spinach, much more mild in flavor. I do buy the canned mixed greens and they aren’t too bad. The pork and corn bread are no problem. In the North I don’t think there is any particular special New Years Day meal. We just always considered it a day to watch the parades and football. As a result, most New Years Days are one continuous snack fest – wings, pigs-in-a-blanket, cheese balls, chips and dip, salsa, etc. Not as nutritious as your black beans and Company, but good.
    I hope you have a wonderful 2016.

    1. Um, Patricia… You fell asleep while reading my post? I’m not sure how to take that! 😀

      You’re not a “dreaded” anything. As for Yankee? Some of my best enemies are Yankees. 😉

      I’ve don’t believe I’ve ever eaten Swiss chard, but I love spinach. I imagine collard, turnip, and mustard greens are an acquired taste. They do have strong flavors. My grandparents loved mustard greens, but I’ve never really cared for them.

      Your idea of New Year’s Day food sounds GREAT! I’ll be right there! 🙂

      1. I didn’t fall asleep reading your post, just writing my comment. I have a bad habit of getting on line late and at 2 AM I often crash on my key board, literally. I have ended up with paragraphs of one letter, having fallen asleep with my finger on the key. Worse, I have written eloquent paragraphs as comment to a post and erased the whole thing before posting it. The other night, I think I just fell asleep and when I woke up forgot what I was doing and closed out sending all my prose into the ether.
        Enjoy your New Year’s celebration.

  11. Hoppin’ John has always been my fall back when required to make the dreaded black-eyed demon seeds. I can smother them in tomatoes and garlic and manage.

    Instead of collards I make cabbage but not the corned beef; usually pork of some kind. It’s all very fluid here these days.

    Even Christmas for me has become fluid as far as what we have. This year it was fried chicken and mini-cheesecakes. Last year it was snitzel. The year before it was ribeyes on the grill. We get weird weather in Nashville at Christmas. Sometimes warm, sometimes not.

    1. Black-eyed demon seeds! May I borrow that? It’s a perfect name for those little…banes of my existence.

      You know, I think fluid is a good thing. It’s kinda fun to discard some traditions do something different once in a while, isn’t it? Almost like playing hooky from school. 😉

      I hope y’all are having good weather up there this year. Much peace, happiness, and prosperity to you and yours in the new year and beyond! 🙂

      1. Fluid seems to work best with us and probably the majority who celebrate the New Year with traditional meals considering that we live in a world of commercially available rather than growing our own. For instance having pork could be anything from ham to German bratwurst. Cabbage can be boiled, fried, or sauerkraut or any other way one.

        And then there’s the cornbread which can be sweet or not, buttermilk or not, with eggs or not, or anything else one’s heart wishes.

        1. I’ve been thinking about the commercial food vs. grow-your-own issue lately, and I’ve decided to start 2016 off with a series of posts about the foods pioneers cooked and how they cooked them. I’ll throw sourdough in right away, because I’ve been playing with that lately. Can you think of any foods you’d like to see covered? I’m going to hunt down heirloom recipes people can try today, with a few modifications. Please let me know if you think of anything! 🙂

          1. I don’t have any recipes; or if I do, they’re all in my head. Worst thing anybody could ask me is how to make something I just served them and they’re shocked when I tell them I don’t have a recipe. I use hillbilly measurements… a pinch of this, a smidgen of that, pats and dollops.

            But, I learned to cook first on a wood stove, :-).

            I bet you’d love to talk to a friend of mine who does food research… in a very snarky way.

            Her site is olivesplace.com . Not sure how much she’ll be able to help with your project but I never know what she’s got under her hat.

  12. Absolutely you can use it, 🙂

  13. Great posts, Kathleen. Liked learning the background of the black-eyed pea. Still love them but only if cooked with seasoning, no added vegetables. As for the greens, I can eat any of them, but my favorite is collards. (I think that’s because the leaves are so large and they’re easy to wash.) My grandmother always added a dash of sugar when boiling them and it makes a huge difference in the bitter taste. My picky grandchildren even like them this way. Looking forward to your posts about the pioneer dishes.

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