Black-eyed peas and collard greens: Happy New Year from the American South

To launch our 2010 blogging, here's a cultural take on our core theme of folk medicines and prescription drugs derived from natural sources (plants, fungi, marine creatures, and microorganisms terrestrial and aquatic).

I've lived in the southern United States for a combined 15 years but it was only when I married into a southern family that I was assimilated into the tradition of eating collard greens and black-eyed peas to kick off the New Year.

I'm told that the custom is a mashup of African American tradition adapted by southern whites that sustained all through the Civil War and the Great Depression.

Mike Stucka of Georgia's Macon Telegraph has compiled a couple of hypotheses today:

The source of the traditions isn't especially clear, and they haven't attracted much interest from researchers.

Some stories say the black-eyed peas became the South's salvation after Union troops destroyed other crops.

Others trace the peas themselves to Africa and speculate they made it here during the slave trade. Jewish people were eating black-eyed peas for good luck in their New Year's celebrations about 2,500 years ago.

Some traditions hold that the black-eyed peas represent coins, and collards can represent cash.

Judge Esther Barger of East Texas's Diboll Free Press cites the Civil War origin as tracing back to Vicksburg, Mississippi, when locals found a stockpile of black-eyed peas after the city had run out of food following an attack.

With all you scholars out there, I'm certain that some of you are aware of formal sources for some of these explanations. As of today, the Wikipedia entry for black-eyed pea, not The Black-Eyed Peas, supports the adaptation of the Jewish tradition by southerners from Sephardi Jewish settlers to Georgia in the 1730s.

Personally, collard greens are an acquired taste, enhanced by some vinegar and bacon or some other pork product.

Black-eyed peas, on the other hand, are something I could eat all day. They are highly-reminiscent of perhaps my favorite southern food: hot boiled peanuts. I first learned of boiled green peanuts from roadside stands in northern Florida (which everyone knows is really part of southern Georgia).

But boiled peanuts are for another post.

In the meantime, to all of my dear friends - in person, online, across town, and around the world - I wish you all of the best for good health and happiness in the upcoming year.

2010 The Year of The Pea.jpg

Addendum: Commenter Rick Wakefield just turned us on to his Facebook group, Black-Eyed Peas for Good Luck. His logo (right) will also take you to the group page.

Rick also links to Peas for Prosperity, the site of recovering attorney and Atlanta-area social activist Christy Annis. Among her many activities to support the community, one dollar from the sale of each bag of Peas for Prosperity goes to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Addendum #2: James Neal in South Carolina just reminded me via Twitter that he is having "Hoppin' John," a dish of rice and black-eyed peas shared along the SC Low Country that was influenced by Caribbean transplants.

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This Northerner of the Caucasian persuasian tasted collards for the first time at age 38, and immediately fell in love with them. Now, I can't get enough greens -- collards, kale, beet, turnip, you name it. And, although I do eat meat, I don't normally use it to season my greens. I prefer onions and garlic, and sometimes some lentils. A little veggie broth is good -- if you prefer a meat product, chicken, beef, or ham bouillion works too.

Of course, I'd been exposed to other greens before; they're certainly not unknown to Mediterranean people, and my Italian-American mom occasionally cooked mustard greens with garlic and lemon, or put a few fresh dandelion greens in a salad.

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 01 Jan 2010 #permalink

Rick, thanks for the heads-up. Hope you don't mind the reproduction of your logo.

Julie, I'm still working on keeping up with the greens all year. I know they're good for me and we get 'em aplenty and fresh from our CSA and farmer's market, but I'm not *that* southern.

For another take on the cooking of the greens and of hopping john (how black eyed peas can be made even better) see this week's NYTimes Food Section

Note that Southern foodways expert Marcie Cohen Ferris is quoted; she's author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South

All that said, peas and greens and parts of pigs are all part of what was left to slaves -- that which the masters didn't want to eat. Creative and smart and with a great sense of taste the enslaved people made some great dishes from what was rejected.

I grew up in Western North Carolina and have transplanted to upstate New York, but I've taught my wife (from Colorado) to make black eyed peas for New Year's. When I was little, we always had them with the hog jowls, and Momma said the hog jowls were for good health, the peas for good luck, and the greens for money. I've gone 50 years now without acquiring the taste for collards, but at least they've become more available in recent years. I recall about 15 years ago shopping for them in a suburban Price Chopper. My charming wife was expressing frustration over not finding them, and a nice African American lady shopping nearby suggested that if we went to one of the "urban" Price Choppers we'd find collards there.

By Mike Jones (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

I only lived in North Carolina for a year, but the tradition has yet to die in my household. Black Eyed Peas! Yummy! (I'll skip the greens though. Acquired? Well, only if you try.)

Just came across your site. Thanks for helping spread the word and lore of the black eyed peas New Year's tradition. Good eating and good storytelling to boot. Posted a recipe on my food site. FYI, I ate my peas and greens for good measure. Happy New Year!

I Love greens with balsamic vinegar, but it's difficult finding collards out of season (turnip seem always available)

I like black-eyed peas as well, but we prefer "field" (crowder) peas.

Marrowfat peas and savoy cabbage I were brought up on. Very much the same kinda veg. I've never had them with pepper sauce, tho. It wasn't just at new year, but most sundays there'd be a roast ham or beef with the veg and lots of gravy, and potatos mashed with butter and cibees (chives) thru.