I have always known that on New Year’s Day, you eat black-eyed peas for good luck in the coming year. My parents weren’t necessarily the strictest adherents to this philosophy, but some how or another, black-eyed peas generally made an appearance on January 1. We had a family friend who made Hoppin’ John, and sometimes we’d end up at their house, even just for a brief stop and spoon full of black-eyed peas.
Now, I never knew that eating good luck peas was a particularly Southern tradition. But over the years, I have been informed that it is in fact very Southern and generally a practice relegated to our part of the world. To me, black-eyed peas on New Year’s just is.
But in the interest of accuracy, I did a little research to discover more about the meaning behind this tradition. What I found out was that eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s day is a Southern tradition said to bring good luck. Beyond that, the ideas were so diverse, you just know that no one really has an answer. The black-eyed peas are for luck, or prosperity, the peas represent coins and greens foldin’ money. The peas swell when cooking, which means an increase in your fortune. Eating humble food shows that you are a humble person worthy of good fortune. Peas bring peace. The idea dates back to the Civil War, it dates back to the ancient Babylonians. Whatever. As I said, eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s day just is. It is what you do.
Many Southerners prefer Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day, which is a black-eyed pea and rice dish, but I really just prefer the peas alone. You can of course, serve these over some cooked rice. Cooking like this is more about instructions than a true recipe, so I’ll lay out mine here.
Around New Year now, I find fresh black-eyed peas in the produce section, which is my choice. The runner up would be frozen black-eyed peas. I cook the black-eyed peas the same way I do most field peas or shelly beans, with cured pork. Traditionally, I would say dishes like this were made with fatback, or streak o’lean (fatback with some lean to it), salt pork or ham hocks. I have turned to country ham slices, because they are readily available around here and give a nice, rich, salty flavor to the beans. I look for some center cut slices and cut those up, but a few “biscuit” slices or a handful of pre-cut chunks will work. You can use bacon if that’s what you can lay your hands on. If you are making a big mess o’ peas, you could go for a ham hock, but for this amount a ham hock is just too big.
I use half chicken broth for flavor, but cut it with water because the reduced liquid – the potlikker – is too salty with all broth. You can use all homemade salt-free stock or all water if you prefer. You can add more or less garlic as you like. Add a nice amount of hot sauce at the beginning of the cooking to season up that potlikker, but don’t go overboard. You will serve these with that sauce bottle on the table of course. Do not add any salt during before or cooking. The ham will take care of that.
For the last few years, I have shared the luck by taking a little black-eyed pea making kit to family and friends, and as a hostess gift to a New Year’s Eve party. To do this, pack the peas, ham and garlic in a resealable container or ziptop bag, and drop these into a gift bag with a box of chicken broth and a small bottle of hot sauce and the recipe. This is a great dish for New Year’s Day, because all you have to do is throw everything in a pot and let it simmer away. Serve it with some greens (we’ll get to that later) and a slice of cornbread, and you are bound to have a good year.
Black-Eyed Peas for New Year's Day
Serves 6 as a side, 3 as the your whole meal
1 pound black-eyed peas
3-4 ounces country ham, cut into pieces
3 cloves garlic
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
A few grinds of black pepper
1 really good dash of hot sauce, plus more to serve
Pick over the black-eyed peas to get rid of any green or bruised ones. Put the peas, ham and garlic in a pot, add the broth and water, then stir in the hot sauce and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and simmer for about 45 minutes. Remove the cover and cook a further hour, until the liquid is reduced and the peas are very tender. Stir occasionally to prevent the peas from sticking to the pot, but if you stir too much, they’ll get mushy.
You can remove the ham and garlic before serving or leave them in. Serve warm.
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