Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Proper Southern New Year's Meal

This year got off to a rough start. My family was stricken with strep throat – all four of us. Despite feeling like there were tiny razors in my throat, there was one thing I knew I had to do yesterday. Eat greens and beans. It’s a Southern New Year’s tradition that I’ve done for as long as I remember. We were going to eat at my friend’s house, who is an amazing cook and food blogger. Check her out at: Life, in Recipes. However, sickness kept us at home. Fortunately, I had thought ahead and had a bag of dried black eyed peas in the pantry. I also had some pre-washed, pre-cut collards and kale that I bought the week before (they were buy one, get one free). Although I took some shortcuts, it ended up working out for the best since I scarcely felt like pulling myself off the couch yesterday.

The collards/kale mixture turned out quite delicious. I don’t really follow recipes (I kind of make stuff up), so here’s what I did. I cooked them in chicken stock, a little extra water, salt, a piece of bacon, a little garlic, a dash of sugar, and a few splashes of vinegar. Yum! I soaked the peas overnight and cooked them for about two hours with a few pieces of onion, salt, pepper and of course – bacon. Had I been truly old school, I would have used a ham hock, but I didn’t have one of those on hand. It’s also possible to do all of this in a vegetarian friendly way –which I often do. Finally, cornbread is essential to accompany the beans and greens. I like to use it as a base to soak up the pot liquor from the greens.

As we ate last night, I thought about food traditions and how important it was for me to have this meal. One reason is superstition. While I’m not usually superstitious, had I not had this meal and ended up “in the poor house” this year, I would have wondered (a little) if it was because I didn’t have my beans and greens on New Year’s Day. I’ve always heard that the greens represent greenbacks and the peas represent coins. Supposedly, the more you eat, the more money you will earn in the coming year. I heard a lot of about “Hoppin’ John” yesterday, which is peas and rice cooked together. I had to look it up because we never had this in my family – or at least never called it that. I read somewhere that this dish in particular represented prosperity with the addition of rice to the “coins.” Because rice expands so much in the cooking process, the thinking is your wealth will follow suit.

Thinking about these things made me wonder more about the origins of this tradition. I know much of it (like many “Southern” traditions) has African roots. The black-eyed pea, for instance, is thought to have originated in North Africa and traveled over to the New World via Spanish colonials and African slaves.

In the next few posts, I want to look more at the origins of this meal, its ingredients, the symbolism and variations on the tradition. For now I must research. I promise, I’ll be back!

UPDATE 12/31/11 - If you are looking for recipes, here is a round up of lucky recipes sure to inspire: Are you Read for a New Year?


  1. so, i have always thought that the greens were for money and the b.e peas for luck.


  2. @Yoth: Hmmm, I'll have investigate. I have heard of the luck component. I'm hoping to get to the bottom of where it all comes from. Thanks for being my first commenter! :)

  3. as a coal mountainer that lives with a west african, i can attest to the similarities in southern and african cooking (even southern appalalachian cooking--a corn, rather than rice, based food culture).
    in fact, the black-eyed peas we ate new year's day were smuggled into the country from burkina faso in the bottom of harouna's suitcase (they eat them cooked with rice there...).
    next time you cook them, try them haitian style--with coconut, honey, tumeric, and cumin--awesome diaspora style!
    nice rachel! keep up the good work!

  4. Love this post, too. The New Year's Day meal is one of the most wonderful Southern food traditions!