History of New Year’s Day food traditions

Published 7:00 pm Saturday, December 30, 2017

By Terry Rector

Hopefully everyone has Vigna unguiculata soaking for tomorrow.  That would be, of course, black eyed peas. Actually, purple hull peas and cream peas and crowder peas all share that same taxonomic name.   They are all subspecies of the same species.

Common names for plants being whatever folks wherever choose to use, the whole group is collectively known as cowpeas or southern peas.

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At one time these summertime peas were grown for hay or silage for cows.

The “southern pea” moniker resulted from the popularity in the South of growing and eating fresh peas and drying some for storage for winter consumption. Black eyed peas and their cousins got here from West Africa, right along with the slave trade of the time.

While there are several stories, theories and borderline myths about the New Year Day’s meal requirement of black eyed peas, all of them credit our South for the tradition.

One story goes the tradition grew from the Civil War when Union troops allegedly took all the food from homes except black eyed peas and salt pork because they considered both unfit to eat.

Rural southerners, the story goes, considered themselves lucky to have the peas and pork to get them through the winter. Thus, black eyed peas became a symbol of good fortune for the upcoming year.

A second explanation for the pea tradition goes right along with the times; the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect January 1, 1863.

Former slaves annually celebrated with a favorite winter staple food; dried black eyed peas soaked and cooked with smoked pork jowl or ham hock.

The original New Year’s green vegetable supposedly was collard greens.  Some say mustard greens or turnip greens were just as acceptable.

Likely, whichever one was available in the garden at the time was apropos.

Best I can tell from modest research on the topic the cabbage tradition came in later as city folk got involved and people from elsewhere moved to the South.

Cabbage is actually a longtime New Year’s food in other parts of the world since it is viewed as a symbol of health.

Cornbread is a no-brainer for a Southern tradition involving food. Obviously there were biscuits at breakfast, but we’re reviewing a noontime meal or even supper on New Year’s Day.

I’ve read some rather in-depth analyses of the symbolism of the New Year’s Day meal tradition.

Other than the pork, I’m not vouching for any of it; merely passing it along. Most celebrants agree black-eyed peas represent good luck.

The green stuff, be it anything from collards to cabbage, is said to stand for money. The cornbread, so say those who say so, symbolizes gold.

That leaves the pork. According to culinary legend, pork on New Year’s Day means we are looking forward, not backwards.The reason for that one is a hog cannot turn its head and look over its shoulder. It has to either turn around to see where it’s been or keep looking ahead.

Again, I can vouch for the hog.
Terry Rector is spokesman for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District.