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Black-Eyed Peas

A Southern Tradition for Luck and Prosperity in the New Year

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A Bowl of Black-Eyed Peas

A Bowl of Black-Eyed Peas

Photo Credit: © 2006 George Alexander, licensed to About.com, Inc.
If you are planning to celebrate the New Year in the Southeast, it is most likely that you will be offered black-eyed peas in some form, either just after midnight or on New Year's Day. From grand gala gourmet dinners to small casual gatherings with friends and family, these flavorful legumes are traditionally, according to Southern folklore, the first food to be eaten on New Year's Day for luck and prosperity throughout the year ahead.

The practice of eating black-eyed peas for luck is generally believed to date back to the Civil War. At first planted as food for livestock, and later a food staple for slaves in the South, the fields of black-eyed peas were ignored as Sherman's troops destroyed or stole other crops, thereby giving the humble, but nourishing, black-eyed pea an important role as a major food source for surviving Confederates.

Today, the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for the New Year has evolved into a number of variations and embellishments of the luck and prosperity theme including:

  • Served with greens (collards, mustard or turnip greens, which varies regionally), the peas represent coins and the greens represent paper money. In some areas cabbage is used in place of the greens.
  • Cornbread, often served with black-eyed peas and greens, represents gold.
  • For the best chance of luck every day in the year ahead, one must eat at least 365 black-eyed peas on New Year's Day.
  • Black-eyed peas eaten with stewed tomatoes represent wealth and health.
  • In some areas, actual values are assigned with the black-eyed peas representing pennies or up to a dollar each and the greens representing anywhere from one to a thousand dollars.
  • Adding a shiny penny or dime to the pot just before serving is another tradition practiced by some. When served, the person whose bowl contains the penny or dime receives the best luck for the New Year, unless of course, the recipient swallows the coin, which would be a rather unlucky way to start off the year.
The catch to all of these superstitious traditions is that the black-eyed peas are the essential element and eating only the greens without the peas, for example, will not do the trick.

Popular Ways to Serve Black-Eyed Peas

Even most avid fans of black-eyed peas will concede that enjoying the flavor, frequently described as nutty, earthy and buttery, is an acquired taste. Whether to enhance or disguise the flavor, depending on your point of view, there are several popular ways to serve black-eyed peas, other than as a simple side dish:
  • Hoppin' John - Although served throughout the year as well, Hoppin' John is one of the most traditional New Year's Eve and New Year's Day dishes in the South. Black-eyed peas are cooked with rice, pork (such as chopped pork or ham, hog jowls or hambones, fatback or bacon) and seasonings. Sometimes chopped onions and hot sauce are added. Hoppin' John and other New Year's Recipes from About.com's Guide to Southern Cooking
  • Texas (Black-Eyed Pea) Caviar - This is a popular casual alternative that blends Southern and Mexican flavors with black-eyed peas and is usually served with tortilla chips. Texas Black-Eyed Pea Caviar Dip Recipe from About.com's Guide to Southern Cooking
  • Black-Eyed Pea Salad - There are many recipes for salads made with black-eyed peas, a good choice for a side dish served with other dishes. Visit About.com's Guide to Southern Cooking for the following version, made with a cider vinegar and basil dressing. Black-Eyed Peas Salad with Basil Dressing

To Eat or Not to Eat Black-Eyed Peas

Whether you choose to follow the Southern New Year's tradition or not, black-eyed peas are a good source of nutrition. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, black-eyed peas are low in fat, contain no cholesterol, and are low in sodium. They are high in potassium, iron, and fiber and a one-half cup serving of cooked black-eyed peas counts as one ounce of lean meat from the Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs and Nuts Group of the Food Guide Pyramid. Black-Eyed Peas Nutritional Information from About.com's Guide to Nutrition.

More About Black-Eyed Peas

Black-eyed peas are actually not peas at all, but rather a variety of bean related to the cowpea and categorized as legumes, having both edible seeds and pods. According to the Library of Congress, they have been cultivated in China and India since pre-historic times and were eaten by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Early records from 1674 indicate that black-eyed peas were transported from West Africa to the West Indies by slaves. Subsequently, they reached the Lowcountry coastal regions of the Carolinas and Georgia, also via the slave trade, more than 300 years ago.

Additional Information and Sources

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