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.)

20 Responses

  1. HELEN ALEXIS

    I LOVE THIS ARTICLE, MEGAN IS MY GRAND DAUGHER AND AM VERY PROUD OF HER .
    RESEARCHING BLACK EYE PEAS WHICH IS A LOUISIANA TRADITION FOR NEW YEARS DAY MEAL WAS A GREAT IDEA. I LIKE THAT SHE ADDED, DON’T FORGET THE CORNBREAD, WHICH IS REALLY A MUST WITH BLACK EYED PEAS. I HOPE EVERYONE ENJOYS READING THIS ARTICLE AS MUCH AS I HAVE. MEGAN WHAT A COOL JOB. I HOPE YOU DO MORE ARTICLES LIKE THIS.CONGRADULATION
    GRANDMA HELEN

    Reply
  2. CINDY

    WHAT A WONDERFUL ARTICLE MEGAN!!! I’M FROM OPELOUSAS, LOUISIANA & I WOULDN’T EVER LET NEW YEAR’S DAY GO BY WITHOUT EATING MY BLACK EYED PEAS & CABBAGE. THANKS FOR ENLIGHTNING THE REST OF THE WORLD OF OUR SOUTHERN TRADITION. GOOD JOB MEGAN!!!!!!

    Reply
  3. R.Glen Armantrout

    As I ate the leftovers from yesterdays wonderful meal, I happened upon this short article and felt compelled to return to the table for more leftover blackeyed peas which, by the way, does bring good luck and prosperity in th New Year according to local traditions. Not only are they healthy but they add so much to the day. When thay are seasoned properly they remind you of a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse meal.

    Reply
  4. Sharlene

    Megan, what an enlightening article. I was born and raised in the South and did not know all of this. Great article, keep them coming.

    Reply
  5. Barb Braniff

    Megan, I’ve been a friend of your Mom and Dad for a long time. I’m not sure if you remember me or not but my husband and I live in Folsom, Louisiana and wanted to compliment you on the wonderful article you wrote about a long time tradition that people in the South have had forever. Thanks for spreading the good news to people who have never heard of this custom. Happy New Year and hope to get to read your future articles great job please keep writing you are very good at it.

    Reply
  6. Sandra

    This was a very enlightening article and very well writen. I am from Louisiana and did not know all of the history. Great article, I would like to read more from you.

    Reply
  7. Ron

    Great article Megan. I grew up in Louisiana but never liked black eyed peas…. maybe because they were never cooked the way you do ’em. Now I have a new perspective and will give them another chance, cooked your way. Thanks a bunch.

    Reply
  8. Dale Foley

    As a Louisiana native and Alaskan resident, I can find a real appreciation for an article like this- written with Southern flare. I was raised eating (and growing) black-eyed peas throughout my childhood and have a hard time explaining it to the locals these days. A spotted bean? Not for them. Even after I assure them of better luck fishing. It isn’t as easy to find them out here, and it is just as hard to find a good ham hock. Nothing a close friend and a Fed-Ex truck cant fix.. thanks Megan for the article! Hope to hear more from you and will keep in touch with your blog.

    Cheers,
    Dale

    Reply
  9. Barbara Dupont

    Your voice is as strong as the family that loves and supports you. Write on, Sweet Pea! You’re cooking now.

    Reply
  10. Helen Hebert Abate

    Helen Hebert Abate Hi Megan, Enjoyed your article so much. I am
    jan 3,2011 from New Orleans and knew about the tradition
    of good luck of eating blackeyed peas on New
    Years, but I did’nt know the story behind
    them.

    Reply
  11. Gayle Anderson Gann

    What a wonderful article. So well written and interesting. I have been eating blackeyed peas on New Years (and other days) all my life.Its nice the know the ‘whole story’.
    Well done.

    Reply
  12. Brenda M

    I love black eyed peas! But I can’t get anyone else in my household to eat them! As a Louisiana girl myself, reading your article made me a little homesick! We had black eyed peas, cabbage and cornbread every New Years Day without fail! My Mom always called the liquid from cooking the cabbage “pot liqour” and that is where you dipped your cornbread. Mmmm good!

    Reply
  13. Bette Breeland Rogyom

    What a great history lesson,Megan! I’m another New Orleans gal who has grown up with the New Year’s tradition of blackeyed peas, cabbage, pork and cornbread for good luck. It’s a must!!

    Reply
  14. Linda Ranatgza

    I’m a dam Yankee who lived in New Orleans for thirty years. I went with southern tradition and ate blackeyed peas, pork and cornbread for good luck and prosperity! I didn’t know the history behind this New Year’s tradition, thanks to this article I will enjoy them more.

    Reply
  15. flo michler

    hi megan, i,m a close friend of your mother.we had horses too i really enjoyed the article . i have always had the blackeyes and cabbage and ham on new years day . thank for lettering us myself included on how it was started. one thing i did not ever do was soak them i will now. . helens best friend. a true new orleans lady flo michler

    Reply
  16. Foster

    Hi Magan,I’m an old friend of your grandmother from New Orleans.Been eating Black Eyed Peas since I was 1 every New Years,with of course cabage.Great article.Brings me mind back to N.O and all the great memories of long ago.Now ask your grandmother where she wants a window in the wall just for fun!

    Reply
  17. Hayley

    Megan, It was great learning the true meaning of our southern tradition! Thank you! This article is very well written, and is a great way to open the eyes of others to our wonderful state of Louisiana! Great job!!

    Reply
  18. Laurie

    Loved the article and the history lesson on where the tradition originated! Great writing – felt like we were having a personal conversation. Keep it coming! YUM!

    Reply
  19. Andrea

    What a great kick-off article Megan! Who knew the roots were in Judiasm? I only ever knew/prepared/cooked with or without pork and assumed it was only Southern. Love it! Keep on writing and cooking!

    Reply

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