Niagara Gazette

December 30, 2012

Enjoy good luck with black eyed peas

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Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — In just a couple days we’ll all be celebrating a New Year many of us thought would never come. Whew, good thing those Mayans had it all wrong.

Perhaps we’re still around to acknowledge this because I ate my black eyed peas last New Year’s Day.

It’s a long-standing tradition in the South to enjoy a bowl (or just a bite if you’re a finicky 4-year-old) of piping hot black eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck to last the entire year. It’s such a prevalent tradition — at least in Texas — that many restaurants offer the little two-toned peas for free to attract customers.

Some eat the dish as a side to perhaps a larger meal, but in my family, black eyed peas have always been the main attraction of the meal we enjoy while sitting down to the Rose Bowl.

Bubbling away on the stove with a hefty dose of onion and salt pork gives the dish a heartier taste, and though I never appreciated them as a child, I sometimes get the urging to prepare them even when it’s not the inaugural day on the calendar.

I never really thought about why it is black eyed peas are considered lucky -- indeed I didn’t realize it was a Southern thing for a long time -- until some friends from Buffalo came to visit me one New Year’s when I was living in Denton, Texas. 

I had plans to make them the typical New Year’s spread, complete with cornbread and stalks of green onion to be eaten straight and raw. They asked about how the tradition started and some Googling led us to a couple explanations.

Wikipedia tells us black eyed peas symbolize prosperity because they swell when they cook. So, would any bean or pea work then?

Many other sources tell us the tradition stems from the Civil War era. Back then black eyed peas were called cowpeas because they were used mostly as cattle feed. Some areas of the country still refer to them as such.

Toward the end of the Civil War, and indeed after, some parts of the South were low on supplies, or had none at all. Supply lines were cut, and crops were often stolen or destroyed ... except for the lowly cowpea. They nourished some Southerners even when there was nothing left to eat during the days of reconstruction. 

These days, it would seem, many Southerners don’t even make the connection between the tradition and its Civil War roots. Heck, I had no idea, and neither did my family when I told them. 

But the tradition survives. And now, it’s even expanding a little northward thanks to that fabulous New Year’s dinner I prepared all those years ago. My friends from Buffalo now live in Brooklyn, and we’re now in the tradition of taking and sending photos of our respective pots of luck bubbling away on the stove.

Enjoy, and good luck in the New Year!

Lucky black eyed peas

1 one-pound bag of dry black eyed peas 

1 large white onion, cut into large chunks

1 package of salt pork, cut into large chunks

salt and pepper to taste

Soak black eyed peas in water overnight to soften and lessen cooking time.

Drain and rinse from the water you soaked them in.

Place in large pot along with onions and salt pork. Cover with water.

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low heat or simmer ... you’ll want to keep them slightly boiling. 

Check and stir periodically, you don’t want the beans to burn or stick to the bottom of the pot. Add more water as needed.

Should take a couple hours to cook beans through.

Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with cornbread and raw, green onion.

Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.