The holiday season abounds with traditions, some well understood and others less discussed. These traditions become so routine that we can sometimes find ourselves asking, “where did it even come from?”
One of the more subtly mysterious New Years’ traditions is a meal of black-eyed peas and collard beans. The historical significance of this meal is often overlooked and passed off as just another one of the old family recipes. Believe it or not, eating black-eyed peas and collard beans is a tradition rich in both history and mystery.
Superstition and Historical Significance of Black-Eyed Peas
Humans love to hold onto superstitions. If a black cat crosses your path, or you unwittingly walk underneath a ladder, you might just watch your step the rest of the day. New Year’s Day is a new chapter’s commencement, and we are always eager to start it off on the best foot.
The tradition of eating black-eyed peas and collard beans on New Year's Day has become associated with good luck, namely financial fortune and prosperity in the coming year. To this day, it is a hard-and-fast tradition in the American south and can be found on family dinner tables and restaurant menus leading up to New Year’s Day. Yet where does this meal- which according to food researcher John Egerton in his book Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History has “mystical and mythical power to bring good luck”- where does it gain such a powerful reputation?
African Origins of Black-Eyed Peas
Evidence gives us clues to look back as early as 500 A.D in Northern Africa, where black-eyed peas along with lentils and various other types of legumes were consumed as part of the Jewish Holiday Rosh Hashana, or the Jewish New Year. These “round foods” were symbolically thought to resemble coins, and consuming them would offer financial fortune at the start of the year and any other times financial help was needed.
Yet the New Year’s superstition didn’t just stop at good luck, says Linda Pellacio, host of the radio show “A Taste of the Past.” Not consuming round foods was thought to bring bad luck, making this tradition more than just a good luck charm but an act of necessity.
As African slaves were transported to the American south, the tradition of eating black-eyed peas began to spread, showing up in various dishes from the Hoppin’ John to Texas Caviar.
Southern Luck and the Civil War
The southern “luck” associated with black-eyed peas was further proven during the Civil War when a story has it that Confederate soldiers were able to survive through the winter on nothing except these nutrient-rich peas. In an attempt to starve the southern troops during the war, Union General William Sherman raided supply food chains leaving behind only the “livestock food” unfit for human consumption.
The most prevalent of these foods were black-eyed peas, which grew exceptionally well in the climate of the southern states. The fact that the soldiers miraculously survived on nothing but peas in the dead of winter provides further merit as to why they are associated with good luck and New Year.
The Addition of Collard Greens
So what about the collard greens? Where do they fit into all of this tradition?
According to Rafia Zafar, a professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, leafy greens are eaten for luck in various cultures worldwide. Their color and texture are likened to American dollar bills. Mixing the “good luck” of the black-eyed peas with the “dollar bills” of the leafy collard greens results in a symbolic representation of unfolding monetary luck or financial prosperity. This also fits well with the idea of the American dream, where every person had an equal opportunity to make their fortune.
It was a meal that symbolized good luck and financial abundance in America’s time of opportunity and prosperity. In that way, it was an obvious contender to become a lasting tradition. The icing on the cake was that black-eyed peas and collard greens were perfectly delicious as a dining duo, and according to Zafir, this is a big reason why the dish continues to be popular despite the ambiguity associated with the historical significance.
To make the prosperous concoction even more abundant, pairing the dish with cornbread symbolized gold, and pairing with tomatoes brought wealth and health. Mixing these ingredients seems like an efficient way to start the New Year.
Are Black-Eyed Peas and Collard Greens a Good Choice?
If superstition is not a priority for you this New year’s, there are some more practical reasons why eating a meal of black-eyed peas and collard greens might be in your favor. As food historian Liz Williams states, despite the name, black-eyed peas are actually beans from a group of African cow peas. They are packed full of protein, fiber, iron, and potassium and low in sodium and cholesterol, making them a deliciously healthy holiday option. Black-eyed peas and collard greens are also affordable, making them accessible to everyone who wants to partake in the fortuitous tradition.
While many of the younger generations might not be familiar with the historical significance of the dish, many food enthusiasts have reason to believe the tradition of the meal will continue to prosper due to its delicious taste and healthy nutritional value.
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