Why Black-Eyed Peas?

New Year’s tradition rooted in Civil War history

James Stefiuk

Ever heard the phrase, “A man who is worth/not worth his salt?” Two thousand years ago, salt was a highly prized commodity, valued both as a seasoning and as a preservative. It was so important, in fact, that a Roman legionnaire’s wages were calculated in terms of how much salt he would be able to buy. If he was a hard worker, he was “worth his salt” — or in Latin, his “sal.” This is where the English word “salary” originates. 

Christian tradition states that the Righteous sit on the right hand of God and the Wicked on God’s left; since the Middle Ages, this has meant that if a person spills the salt, she must use her right hand to toss a bit of it over her left shoulder and into the devil’s eyes, or her future will be bleak. Leonardo DaVinci’s painting of the Last Supper illustrates this superstition: On the left side of Jesus sits the traitor, Judas Iscariot, whose wayward elbow has toppled the saltshaker. He appears not to have noticed.

Salt isn’t the only food-item linked to superstition. Nowadays, however, we tend to remember the flavorful stories associated with the foods we eat (or avoid eating) only on certain occasions, like New Year’s Day. And nowhere in the U.S. are food traditions more important at New Year’s than in the South.

History says that during the Civil War, Yankee soldiers frequently raided barns and homes in the South for food; but legend has it that they left the black-eyed peas behind, because they considered peas fodder for cattle. Southerners have thought of black-eyed peas a lucky food ever since — made especially lucky since they swell as they cook. Who wouldn’t want their luck to swell in the coming year?

It can be tricky to know which meat to pair with the New Year’s black-eyed peas, but since “we are what we eat,” some knowledge of the personal habits of animals can help with that decision. Pigs use a forward motion to root for food, so those individuals who want to move ahead in life should eat pork at the New Year. They should also steer clear of chicken, since chickens scratch in the dirt for their food. Cows eat standing still (and regurgitate their food to chew it again), so beef should be avoided at all costs.

What rounds out a Southern black-eyed-peas-and-pork dish best? Greens, which are the color of money.

Crockpot Hoppin’ John 

(serves 8)

This traditional Southern dish may or may not increase your luck in 2017 … but it sure tastes good.

Directions: Place 2 lbs. pork loin in slow cooker. Add 1 cup diced green peppers, 1 cup dried black-eyed peas (rinsed), 1 tsp. (2 cloves) minced garlic, 1 can diced tomatoes (with liquid), 1 packet onion soup mix, ½ tsp. salt and 4 cups chicken broth. Cook 6 hours on low heat, or until peas are just tender. Shred pork. Turn heat to high; add 2 cups white rice and 4 cups chopped collared greens. Stir. Cook (covered) until rice is tender (about 45 minutes). Serve with hot sauce and shredded cheese. Wrap leftovers in tortillas and freeze for delicious freezer-to-oven burritos.

Categories: Recipes