By MaryAnn Miano
We may be living in the northeast, but what better time to follow a southern tradition than New Year’s, when we all could use a little good luck? It is customary and traditional to consume black-eyed peas in the southeast either just after midnight on New Year’s Eve or on New Year’s Day. These little beauties are the first food to be eaten for luck and prosperity for the new year ahead.
The story goes that eating black-eyed peas for luck dates back to the Civil War. The legumes were first planted as food for livestock and later as a food staple for slaves in the south. When Sherman’s troops destroyed or stole other crops, somehow they left the fields of black-eyed peas alone. The food became a major food source for surviving Confederates, containing nourishment for the people.
Since then, the tradition has evolved with variations of the “luck” theme. When served with greens such as collard, turnip, or mustard, the peas represent coins and the greens represent paper money. When cornbread is served with this dish, the cornbread represents gold. To gain the most luck for the year ahead, a person should consume at least 365 black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. When eaten with stewed tomatoes, the black-eyed peas represent wealth and health. In the south, some folks assign monetary values to the black-eyed peas, with some peas worth a penny and going up to a dollar. Some people will cook the peas with a shiny penny or dime in the pot, serving up the peas for one lucky person to find the coin.
You’ll really hit the jackpot when you learn the incredible nutrition these tasty legumes provide. First of all, their name gives a clue as to their appearance. They are cream-colored with a little black spec on them that resembles an eye. While not really peas, they are actually beans with anti-inflammatory properties. A high fiber food, they improve digestion; high in iron, they prevent anemia; high in potassium, they lower blood pressure and stave off coronary heart disease. They are also high in folate and B vitamins and contain a strong dose of Vitamin A, which gives us great skin and healthy eye vision.
Interestingly, black-eyed peas were cultivated since prehistoric times in China and India. They are related to the mung bean. They were believed to be native to West Africa, but were grown in warm regions throughout the world. Ancient Greeks and Romans preferred them over chickpeas. The black-eyed pea was brought to the West Indies from West Africa by slaves sometime around 1674.
Black-eyed peas are a key ingredient in the classic soul food recipe known as Hoppin’ John, which is mainly black-eyed peas, rice, and smoked pork. Another popular dish made with the legume is a dish served from Portugal, where the beans are served with boiled cod and potatoes. There are so many ways to serve them up. They make a great addition to soups and stews, curries and salads, or mash them up and use them in a dip.
Happy and prosperous New Year, everyone, and don’t forget to eat your black-eyed peas!
6 ounces dry black-eyed peas
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ cups water
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked brown rice
About ¼ lb. diced cooked ham (optional)
Place peas in a large bowl. Add 3 to 4 cups of water and soak overnight.
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and sauté until onions are tender, about 10 minutes. Add small amounts of water, if necessary, to prevent drying. Reduce heat to low.
Rinse and drain peas. Add to saucepan.
Add 1 ½ cups water and remaining ingredients, except rice. Add diced ham, if desired. Cover and simmer 30 minutes, until peas are tender. Add rice. Cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove and discard bay leaf before serving.