It’s almost New Year’s, and you know what that means, right?
It’s almost time to make black-eyed peas for good luck in the new year.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “What on God’s green earth is she talking about?”, then let me explain. Bless your little heart, you’re probably a Yankee. Or else you’ve never spent much time in the South. It’s an old tradition in the South to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck and prosperity. You just do. You can eat them with cornbread or greens or any number of other things. You can add rice to them and turn them into Hoppin’ John, but whatever else you do, you need to eat those black-eyed peas. There is some argument as to when the tradition actually got started–some say around the time of the Civil War while others say it occurred in the 1940s–but it’s been around longer than I’ve been alive, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s a pretty well-established deal by now. And can’t we all use a little extra good luck?
I confess that I don’t just loooooove black-eyed peas. I like them, yes. I enjoy them on an occasional basis. But I don’t hunger for them around the end of December the way that, say, my husband hungers for pumpkin pie each autumn when the leaves start changing colors. But I know that New Year’s is the time to eat black-eyed peas, and so I make them. And we eat them.
My mom used to tell us that you earned a whole day of good luck for every black-eyed pea that you ate. I probably only accumulated a couple of months’ worth of good luck on an average New Year’s Day, but still, that’s better than nothing, I’d say. When I became an adult, I carried on the tradition. Now I actually look forward to making black-eyed peas and cornbread each New Year’s Day. It’s not hard to make, and it’s warm and hearty, and it’s NOT turkey, which I am completely tired of by the time New Year’s Day rolls around.
Here’s how I make mine. This is completely unscientific, I have to warn you. I don’t measure anything. I just go by feel. This is the sort of “recipe” that will drive people who need precise instructions completely batty.
First, I soak a couple of bags of dried black-eyed peas in a large pot overnight. The next morning, I drain and rinse them. Then I put the peas back in the big pot, add enough water to seem reasonable, and turn the heat on. Next, I chop up a couple of onions, about a half-dozen ribs of celery (sometimes more), and a few slabs of the ham that we usually have for New Year’s. I cook the whole mess together slowly over low heat for a few hours, throwing in a few teaspoons of pepper and salt, too. A few times, I’ve cooked the hambone in there, too. And sometimes I’ve added some celery seed. I heard that tabasco sauce is good, too, but I’ve never tried that.
I just went into my kitchen to make sure that I have enough peas to cook on Saturday, and I found the bag that I bought last week. It even has a recipe for “New Year’s Eve peas” printed on the wrapper. The Publix-brand black-eyed peas recipe calls for chicken stock and a bayleaf, which could be interesting, but that seems awfully fancy for what is essentially a peasant-style meal. Still, could be worth trying one of these years.
At any rate, it’s really hard to go wrong, although there are two major ways that I can think of that could undermine your success. The first is not adding enough seasoning. Black-eyed peas are pretty bland, and especially if you don’t have any ham or pork to add into the pot, you really need to make sure you’ve got enough pepper, salt and onion in there. The second bad idea is using canned black-eyed peas. Trust me on this: I’ve tried it. Blech. It’s just not the same. It’s okay to do a quick-soak of your dried peas on New Year’s morning if you forget to soak them overnight, but it’s really inexcusable to use canned beans instead of dried beans. For one thing, it’s cheaper to use the dried peas. For another, it doesn’t take that much longer if you do a quick-soak, and it’s not labor intensive to do any kind of a soak anyway. You just pour the bag into a pot, cover them with water and let ’em sit. I think that’s easier than opening cans, rinsing and draining, rinsing and draining–don’t you? And finally, the dried peas aren’t as mushy as the canned ones. The dried ones are going to get mushier as they cook, so why would you want to start out with already-mushy peas? Just used the dried ones already.
I have heard that some people make black-eyed pea salad instead of the traditional pot of peas. I’m not sure what I think of this. On the one hand, I like black-eyed pea salad. On the other hand, it seems like a sneaky way to circumvent the tradition. But back on that original hand, you’re still eating black-eyed peas, so I guess it has to count. I will grudgingly allow this.
But if you’re going to make black-eyed peas, however you are going to make them, better go buy them now. Stores in the South sometimes sell out. And interestingly enough, the commissary on the base in Twentynine Palms, California, used to sell out every December, too. I guess all those Marines and Navy personnel from the South didn’t want to miss out on the tradition, either.
After you make the peas, it’s up to you what you want to serve with it. Tradition holds that cornbread or greens are served alongside the peas, and those are certainly fine but not absolutely necessary. I make Jiffy cornbread because it’s easy, but I’m not a big fan of greens (I know, I know, the heresy), so I don’t make greens on New Year’s Day. One of these days I’m going to make some real old-fashioned cornbread, now that I’ve inherited a couple of old cast-iron skillets from my grandmother. But this year, I’ll probably go the Jiffy route again. I still think it tastes just fine.
Well, if you’ll excuse me…I’m off to Publix again. I don’t think I have enough onions and celery, and I am NOT going to risk that.