On New Year’s Day, you’ll find people throughout the South eating black-eyed peas and greens. Many former Southerners have spread this tradition to other parts of the country. If this tradition is new to you, you probably have lots of questions – how did the tradition start? What do the foods symbolize? How do I cook them? Here are some answers to get you started.
Eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s 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. It’s possible that the tradition arrived in America with Sephardic Jews, who first arrived in Georgia in the 1730s. Common folklore tells that the tradition spread after the Civil War. The Northern Army considered the black-eyed peas to be suitable only for animals, so they didn’t carry away or destroy the crops.
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. Yet another is that because dried beans greatly expand in volume, they symbolize expanding wealth.
Clearly, a lot of people closely associate good luck with monetary gain. That’s where the greens come in (in case I need to spell it out, green is the color of U.S. currency). Any green 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, but some theorize that because pigs root forward when foraging, the pork represents positive motion.
There’s no single official way to prepare your black-eyed peas on January 1. One popular dish is Hoppin’ John, which is a mixture of black-eyed peas, rice, and 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.