Friday, August 5 2022

Adrian Miller

On New Year’s Day, millions of people will mindfully eat a certain amount of black-eyed peas in hopes that it will lead to prosperity throughout 2021. This superstition has its strongest hold on people connected with the South, whether by birth, lineage, or current residence. For people who don’t fall into one of these categories, and even for many of them, tradition is a bit of a headache. I know I’m supposed to, but I don’t know why. I’m here to provide answers, and those answers come from a layered culinary and cultural mix of West Africa and Western Europe. Let’s break down this culinary tradition into its key ingredients.

Why the first day of January?

First of all, we can thank the Romans, especially Julius Caesar, that our calendar starts in January. The Roman annual calendar began in March, in honor of Mars, the god of war. Doing what dictators do, Caesar turned things around in 46 BCE and started the year in January. Not everyone was on board at first, and many European countries operated with different calendars until Pope Gregory XIII changed the Julian calendar in 1582.

Europeans fully embraced the idea that doing something, or something happening, on the first day of the year would have consequences throughout the year. For our purposes, the most relevant example is the Scottish tradition of the “first footer” or “first footer”. The Scots believed that on New Year’s Day you will be lucky all year round if the first visitor you receive, i.e. the “first foot” into your house, is a dark-haired man. or dark complexion. Change anything, like hair color or gender, and it’s bad luck, y’all. Sometimes this visitor would bring gifts to improve the prospect of prosperity in the new year, which could include food. The Scots, one of the largest white ethnic immigrant groups in British North America, brought the first foot superstition with them to the South.

Enter West Africans

Black-eyed peas, which despite their name are actually a type of bean, originated in West Africa and are common in cuisines in the region. They belong to a broader category of beans called “niébé” in West Africa and “fodder peas” in the South. Prior to European contact, West Africans had no analogous New Year’s food tradition, but as in many cultures around the world, they celebrated auspicious days with symbolic food or by preparing a traditional meal. In many West African religious traditions, deities had human attributes. They had their favorite foods, and black-eyed peas were often on the shortlist for special occasions. Even today, black-eyed pea dishes are served on occasions such as the birth of a child (especially twins), a homecoming, or a funeral. Additionally, West Africans have long viewed black-eyed peas as a lucky charm that warded off the evil eye.

People of European descent might also identify with this. They carried amulets of things with “eyes”, like a chestnut tree, for the same purpose. Also, even though the beans had a reputation as low-end, they were viewed more favorably on auspicious days because they swell during cooking. This increase in size symbolized good luck as fortune would presumably increase. Another piece of the puzzle is that black-eyed peas are quite prolific, so they could be considered a symbol of fertility. Another way people, uh, increase.

come to the south

Under far more horrific circumstances than the Scots, enslaved West Africans brought their food traditions and beliefs to the American South. Slave ships leaving West Africa were supplied with black-eyed peas to support captives during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Slaves grew black-eyed peas in their plantation gardens. In the mid-1700s, slaves and slave owners regularly ate black-eyed peas. Thomas Jefferson grew them in his garden at Monticello.

No one knows exactly when this happened, but the various ingredients have come together to create a new New Year’s tradition in Southern kitchens. Perhaps the enslaved African-American cooks in plantation kitchens came up with the idea of ​​substituting the dark “eyes” of black-eyed peas for the first visitor after hearing about the tradition. European slave owners, including those of English and Irish descent, may have had the same idea after noticing how highly esteemed slaves held field peas. Another possibility is that Sephardi Jews who came to the South, especially those with a connection to Syria, inspired others to copy their custom of eating black-eyed peas for good luck on Rosh Hashanah. , their New Year’s Day. In any case, a new and lasting tradition was born.

A lucky tradition spreads

Over time, this New Year’s tradition has taken various forms. In the Carolinas, especially in areas heavily influenced by Geechee and Gullah culture, rice is cooked with black-eyed peas or red field peas to turn the lucky dish into hoppin’ John. Some families place a penny in the pot of black-eyed peas to symbolize the dish bringing prosperity through coins. Receiving the penny in your serving gives an extra boost of good luck. This troubles me for two reasons. First, there is a serious choking hazard with that penny. Second, after two centuries, shouldn’t the celebrants have adjusted to inflation? A dollar coin, or a quarter at least? Many celebrants also added dark green leaves to the plate as a symbol of dollar bills or “folding money”.

So now you know the recipe for an enduring tradition: take one part European superstition, one part West African culinary memory, one part cultural exchange, combine them in the pre-war South and simmer for several centuries. While I was growing up in Denver, Colorado, my southern born parents served black-eyed peas every day of the year. I must admit that over the years the promise of prosperity has sometimes been kept. Yet, I still strive to eat these lucky beans every year. For some reason, they still have a taste of hope.

Below is one of the first recipes I received from my late mother, Johnetta Miller. Although this is a black-eyed pea recipe, this is my standard approach to preparing any vegetable “soul food style”. If you want to give this recipe a hopping john feel, prepare rice separately, mix and eat.


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