The other Black-Eyed Peas

I was born in New Orleans and grew up celebrating local customs and eating what the rest of the country would consider very strange food. When I moved to Chicago in the fourth grade, no one had crawfish boils, no one ate cheese grits for breakfast, and no one even knew what a po’ boy was.

As I’ve grown up and ventured out on my own, I’ve tried to bring my Southern traditions along with me. One of those customs is eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.

A black-eyed pea is not a pea, but in fact, a bean and a cousin of the cowpea. It’s very commonly grown in the American South, places such as Texas and Louisiana, and is used in Southern cooking and “soul food”.

Black-eyed peas get their good luck stigma from Jewish law. Babylonian Jewish teachings state that eating black-eyed peas -or in Hebrew, rubiya – on the Jewish new year Rosh Hashanah, would promise good luck and prosperity in the year ahead.

This tradition was brought to the United States in the 1700’s, when Sephardic Jews immigrated to the American South. Jewish tradition mixed with Southern soul food, and a new tradition was born. Instead of eating black-eyed peas on the Jewish high holiday, Southerners ate black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, January 1.

There’s a lot that can be done with black-eyed peas, but by themselves they’re extremely bland. They can be put into casseroles, stews, soups, and salads.

The way I grew up eating them was seasoned with onions, garlic, bell peppers, cayenne pepper, dried herbs, and hot sauce if you wanted it extra spicy. But the real key to flavoring your black-eyed peas is pork fat (i.e. hog jowl, ham bones, ham hocks, fat back, or a chopped ham steak if you’re desperate). If you stew your beans with your pork fat long enough, you’ll get a great smoky and meaty flavor that makes those simple peas taste rich and hearty.

Also in the South, any home-style meal was accompanied with greens (mustard, collard, turnip) and meat, usually pork. The reason that pork was used to accompany the lucky beans was because pigs move only in a forward motion when foraging for food; thus, eating pork symbolized moving forward into the year ahead. (Something I didn’t know until today. Thank you, Wikipedia.) The greens symbolized a hope for money in the new year.

But why are the black-eyed peas considered lucky? When you soak the beans in water before you cook them (which you need to do if you buy them in their dried form), they soak up all the water and swell to almost twice their size. In other words: they gain, they prosper, they thrive and they progress into something bigger and better. Who wouldn’t want to jump start their life in the new year just like a black-eyed pea?

Happy 2011, y’all.

(And don’t forget the cornbread.)