VIENNA, Va., December 15, 2011 — With New Year’s Day only two weeks away, a new discussion has raised its head. Traditionally throughout the South, a dish of black-eyed peas (with or without rice) is served on New Year’s Day; it’s thought to ensure prosperity and good luck to the family for the coming year.
Recently one of those internet bits of legend or lore has raced across the web purporting to explain the “true story” behind the black-eyed peas tradition.
According to the typical unnamed source, it all goes back to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and his march to the sea in late 1864. His stated purpose was to destroy the South, burning what he could, stealing crops, cows, food stuffs of all types, so that “a crow flying across the land could not find provenance” as he put it.
All that is true, but the story continues that the only thing left to the starving people of the South were the black-eyed peas still in the fields, since the less savvy Union troops did not realize they were edible.
Figuring that livestock was the only thing that would eat the peas (hence the alternate name of “cow peas”) and since they had stolen all the livestock, there was no use for the peas.
And thus since New Year’s Day 1866, the South has clung to the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on that first day of the year. Or so goes the lore.
Interestingly enough, one can find a dozen sites on the web which say basically the same thing, making one confident that most entries were written by those of the Northern persuasion, bless their hearts, who just didn’t know any better.
The truth of the situation is that the South was an agrarian nation, and its meals usually were made from what was in season at the time. By the time Christmas and New Year’s Day arrived, their larders and springhouses were low, but they still might have storage apples and sweet potatoes as well as winter crops of greens, peanuts, and some grains. While their supplies were vastly diminished, no question about it, and there was no access to sugar, salt, or any kind of meat, there were other things edible besides black-eyed peas to eat.
Some Southern cook books refer to cooked black-eyed peas, well seasoned with “fat back and pork belly” as well as ham hocks in Hoppin’ John. That dish is frequently served with a spicy rice, garlic and shrimp dish called “Limpin’ Susan.”
Back as far as the middle ages, similar black-eyed peas or field peas have been found as a food staple; this also is true of Africa. Is it possible that we perhaps have the influence of slave cooks for the introduction of black-eyed peas to the South? This legume was also eaten as far back as the Babylonians, so as someone once said, there is nothing new under the sun.
One thing appears fairly true, they existed prior to the infamous trip of General Sherman, and he really can’t take credit for the delicious dish Southerners associate with New Year’s Day.
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