On New Year’s Day, you’ll find people throughout the South eating black-eyed peas and greens. Many former Southerners brought this tradition to other parts of the country, too. If this tradition is new to you, you might be wondering how it started, or what these foods symbolize. You also might want to know how to cook black-eyed peas and greens in order to begin your own tradition.
Eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day has been considered good luck for at least 1,500 years. According to a portion of the Talmud written around 500 A.D., it was Jewish custom at the time to eat black-eyed peas in celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (which occurs in the fall). It is possible that the tradition arrived in America with Sephardic Jews, who first arrived in Georgia in the 1730s.
According to common folklore, the tradition spread after the Civil War. During General Sherman's march, the Union Army pillaged the Confederates' food supplies but left the peas and pork, believing they were food for the animals and not for human consumption. The Southern soldiers thus felt lucky to have these supplies to get them through the cold winter. Another Southern tradition states that black-eyed peas are a symbol of emancipation for previously enslaved African-Americans, who were officially freed on New Year's Day after the Civil War.
There are a variety of explanations for the symbolism of black-eyed peas. One is that eating these simple legumes demonstrates humility and a lack of vanity. The humble nature of the black-eyed pea is echoed by the old expression, “Eat poor on New Year's, and eat fat the rest of the year.” Another explanation is that dried beans loosely resemble coins. And an additional interpretation is that because dried beans greatly expand in volume when cooked, they symbolize expanding wealth.
Clearly, a lot of people closely associate good luck with monetary gain. Since the color of U.S. currency is green, that's where the cooking greens come in.
There’s no single official way to prepare your black-eyed peas on January 1st. They can be seasoned simply with just salt and pepper or highly seasoned with herbs and spices. Most dishes will include a part of the pig, such as a ham bone, pig's feet, or hog jowl. One popular dish is hoppin’ John, which is a mixture of black-eyed peas, rice, and either bacon or ham hock. Some people throw a dime into the pot and believe that whoever winds up with the dime in their serving gets extra good luck for the coming year.
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When it comes to the greens, any variety of cooked greens will do, but the most common choices are collard, turnip, or mustard greens. Golden cornbread is often added to the Southern New Year’s meal, and a well-known phrase is, “Peas for pennies, greens for dollars, and cornbread for gold.” Pork is a staple of just about every Southern meal, so it’s usually cooked with the black-eyed peas. The pork seems to be there for flavor as opposed to symbolism. However, some theorize that because pigs root forward when foraging, the pork represents positive motion.