Why we eat black eyed peas on New Year’s day
The tradition of eating blackeyed peas on New Year’s Day is an old tradition among Southern families. When General William T. Sherman’s troops encountered Southern families they ate or stole everything that appealed to them. The only thing they left alone were the patches of blackeyed peas they found along their route of destruction. The pea is actually a bean that was domesticated in Africa and brought to America aboard slave ships. They were used to feed the slaves on the ships and planted by the slaves as a food source on the plantations. Often they were planted around the borders of the fields when it was discovered that peas added nitrogen to the soil. Often planted peas were not harvested. They were left for the livestock to graze on and became known as “cow peas”. Since they were feed for cattle and food for slaves, the Northern troops ignored them and left them alone. Often the peas were the only thing the Southern farm families had to eat. The peas kept families from starving and as a result the families felt lucky to have them for food.
The Sephardic Jews that came to America already had a tradition of eating the small white peas during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As their culture mingled with the colonial residents and slaves, the practice of eating peas to start the New Year spread to the non-Jewish populations. Southern families also began to feel that eating peas the first meal of the New Year was a way to bring prosperity in the coming year.
Other foods became part of the meal and symbolisms developed for those foods also. Since greens were flat and green, it began to be that the greens represented money and that eating them would bring money in the New Year. The golden color of cornbread became a symbol for gold. Peas represented coins. Often a new dime would be placed in a pot of peas. The person who received the dime in their serving was believed to become the recipient of luck and money, unless the coin was swallowed. Peas stewed with tomatoes became to represent health and wealth.
A meal with a combination of peas, greens, and cornbread was a way of hoping for prosperity, good luck, and good health.
The amount of livestock that a person had indicated their wealth; so the ability to slaughter a pig showed prosperity. The pig was considered a symbol of progress in folklore due to the way the pig rooted with its snout and always moved forward in .hit search for food. Eating pork therefore signified progressive movement coming in the New Year.
A typical New Year’s meal that symbolized hopes for prosperity would often consist of blackeyed peas, cabbage, collard or turnip greens, and pork. It may have been a pork roast, ham, hocks, jowls, or even ribs; all that mattered was that it was pork. Some believed that a person needed to eat at least 365 peas, one for good luck every day of the New Year.
There is a similar tradition that comes from Spain. Twelve grapes were placed in a glass of champagne or wine. At midnight, on each stroke of the clock, one grape would be eaten as the drink was sipped. This was believed to bring sweetness in each of the coming 12 months.
Regardless of whether or not a person believes in any of the traditions, after meals of turkey and dressing in November and December, peas, greens, cornbread, and pork is a welcome change.