For as far back as I can remember, my family held to the old Texas tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. The ritual called for peas and greens, in our case mustard greens, and guaranteed good fortune in the year to come.
My grandmother said the peas represented copper pennies and the greens, greenback dollar bills. The obligatory cornbread had no special meaning I suppose, but black-eyed peas and greens without cornbread would be like Moonpies without RC Colas, or Tom’s Salted Peanuts without a Coke. In Dixie, some things are wedded by natural reasoning.
Of course, black-eyed peas were not just a Jan. 1 item at our house. They were part of the regular cycle of things that belonged on a proper Southern table — such as fried chicken, hot biscuits, fried ham with redeye gravy and banana cream pie.
While black-eyed peas are generally a Southern thing, Texas seems to have an even stronger affinity for the little legumes than elsewhere. In this country, the most common variety is the California Blackeye, but home gardeners still produce a wide variety of heirloom versions. Black-eyed peas do not all have black-eyes. Some eyes are brown, red, pink or green. In the south, we are also fond of purple hull peas.
We have West Africa to thank for black-eyed peas. They first appeared in this country in Virginia in the 17th Century and soon their vines stretched out to the Carolinas and Florida. Eventually, they reached Texas where they were particularly popular. The plant was a favorite of famed agronomist George Washington Carver of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Carver championed the peas for their high nutritional value, and because they added needed nitrogen to worn out soil.
The New Year’s Day black-eyed pea tradition is essentially a southern thing, with different regions offering variations on the theme. In South Carolina, the dish is served with rice and called “Hoppin’ John,” but whatever the style, the idea is generally the same. Fresh or dried peas cooked with pork — bacon and ham hocks being most favored — and served with greens — collards, turnip or mustard. Essential to the meal is cornbread, which some folklorists suggest symbolizes gold.
For a slightly more sophisticated take, Helen Corbitt, the longtime director of food services for Neiman Marcus stores, developed a marinated black-eyed pea dish she called “Texas Caviar,” that quickly became a cocktail party staple in Texas during the holidays.
However you take them, black-eyed peas are a good thing, and you would not want to take a chance on the prosperity angle, would you? Personally, I like to add a can of hominy to my pot of peas, but that’s another story.
Happy birthday to Waymon Wilson, Lavar Lenwood Hall and Samantha Wilson, all of Denison; and Ashley Daugherty of Pottsboro.