Different communities across the world have various traditions of observing New Year’s Day, some going as far back in history as possible. New Year’s Eve holds different meanings for different people, but most come with a feeling of hope and optimism.
One of the longest-held traditions among many African Americans and Southerners is the eating of black-eyed peas in some form, either just after midnight or on New Year’s Day. As author John Egerton wrote in his book Southern Food, it is believed that black-eyed peas have a “mystical and mythical power to bring good luck.”
Black-eyed peas, despite their name, are actually not peas but rather a type of bean. Categorized as legumes, black-eyed peas made the journey to the Americas on slave ships. Records from 1674 show that black-eyed peas were transported from West Africa to the West Indies by enslaved people.
The flavorful legumes then got to the Lowcountry coastal regions of the Carolinas and Georgia, also thanks to enslaved Africans, over 300 years ago, according to a report by The Spruce Eats. Enslaved people in the South planted them in their gardens as they were seen as food for the poor. Used in soups and stews, black-eyed peas were also used to feed animals.
But after the Civil War, it was more common to see people eating black-eyed peas throughout the South. The legumes were no more food for only the enslaved and the poor. In fact, during the Civil War when the Union Army raided the Confederate Army’s food supplies or fields, they took all their crops, leaving behind black-eyed peas because of the low reputation associated with the legumes.
The Confederate Army would survive on black-eyed peas during harsh winter. And today, the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for the New Year has evolved. When served with greens (collards, mustard or turnip greens), the peas represent coins and the greens represent paper money, the report by The Spruce Eats said. The report added that in some communities, cabbage is used in place of the greens.
Cornbread, also usually served with black-eyed peas and greens, represents gold while black-eyed peas served with stewed tomatoes represent wealth and health. It is believed that one must eat at least 365 black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to receive the best luck for the New Year.
Some families will even put a penny or a dime inside the pot of peas. Whoever gets to receive the coin will have the most luck for the rest of the year.
The most common way to eat black-eyed peas is in the Hoppin’ John dish, where the legumes are cooked with rice, pork (often chopped pork, fatback or bacon) and seasonings. Some people add hot sauce and chopped onions.
No one knows precisely where the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for luck and prosperity in the new year came from. However, one theory is that enslaved people ate black-eyed peas when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863. Another story is based on the Southern phrase, “eat poor on New Year’s and eat fat the rest of the year”, and this is largely due to the belief that black-eyed peas were for the poor.
Today, as African-American families and Southerners carry on the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year for good luck and prosperity, you may be wondering whether or not to follow this New Year’s tradition. Whatever you decide, just note that black-eyed peas are highly nutritious and come with many health benefits.
Health experts say they improve heart health, promote digestive health and may help support weight loss. They are high in protein and fiber, and also delicious. It is also not difficult to incorporate them into various recipes as part of a healthy diet.