I’ve been quite obsessed with getting to the bottom of the Southern New Year’s meal tradition. I've been reading, thinking, and dreaming (quite literally) about black-eyed peas. Although Google thinks I want to know about Fergie, Will.i.am and the crew, I’ve managed to wade through a good bit of information online. Being an old-fashioned kind of girl, I've also consulted a book or two. Here’s what I’ve learned:
What exactly is a black-eyed pea? Black-eyed peas are actually beans and part of the legume family. They are a type of cowpea. Other names and varieties include bird peas, field peas, conch peas, Congo peas, crowder peas and pigeon peas.
Where did black-eyed peas come from? They are thought to be descended from wild African cowpeas and cultivated as early as 3000 B.C.E. in Africa. Black-eyed peas were eaten across the ancient Near East and Asia. They made their way to the Americas via enslaved Africans who likely hid them in their hair on the long journey over. They were widely grown across the South and popular with enslaved peoples and "po' folks" (who made up the majority of the population).
Why are black-eyed peas considered lucky? There are several different schools of thought on how black-eyed peas came to represent luck and good fortune. Maybe the answer is all of the above?
Looking forward …Because black-eyed peas have “eyes,” eating them will help you see into the future.
Simply the shape …Or, maybe it’s just because they are small and round like coins.
They go forth and multiply …Because black-eyed peas are easy to propagate, dry and store, and because they swell and expand upon cooking, perhaps the eater’s wealth will also multiply, expand and be well preserved.
Where does the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day come from? Many believe that the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day is derived from an old Jewish custom. In fact, some Jewish groups still eat peas as part of a proper Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) meal. The custom is traced back to the Babylonian Talmud, recorded around 500 C.E., which lists black-eyed peas (rubiya) as a good luck food fitting for a New Year’s feast. When Sephardic Jews immigrated to Georgia, via Savannah, in the early 18th century, they brought this custom with them.
Another theory (or perhaps legend) is that the tradition dates back to the Civil War when Union troops pillaged the land and left nothing behind except for peas and greens they mistook for animal fodder. Southerners survived off these humble and nutritious foods when they had little left. As a reminder of the tenacity and “rebirth” of the Southern spirit, they came to eat beans and greens to celebrate each new year.
What about greens? Well, there’s no mystery here. The color of greens is the color of money. Cabbage is considered a “lucky food” across the globe. For the Southern New Year’s meal any green will do – cabbage, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens – what have you.
More mysteries to explore …Here are some things I’d love to hear from you. I’ve read of traditions where cornbread represents gold. There’s also tale of people having to eat 365 peas for good luck each day of the year. I had never heard of these before. What are your family traditions? Anything you’re curious to know? I’d love to hear from you as I embark on this new venture!