NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– At the inception of a new year, the tables of the American South are adorned with the traditional meal of black-eyed peas, cabbage and cornbread. Depending on where you are, the peas may have okra in them, and the cabbage may become collard greens.
The meat is usually a smoked and salted pork, with a bone-in ham being the general favorite. The greens are thought to be a reference to the money that folds, the cornbread is said to imitate gold, but the peas are said to be lucky.
With the kind of year we have all had in 2020, we could all use a bit of luck to start 2021. But have you ever wondered how this tradition got to the United States?
In the 17th century, at the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, black-eyed peas were a west African crop that made it’s way into the gardens of the United States.
Sheri Raleigh is a chef in the Austin, Texas area with deep roots in south Louisiana. She is also a food historian and educator.
“I read Chef Edna Louis’ book: A Taste of Country Cooking, where she states that black-eyed peas were truly African. The first introduction of black-eyed peas to the Virginia area was by way of Thomas Jefferson, via France. France was always an exponent of agriculture and found black-eyed peas high in nitrogen and other social building qualities. There were originally called mogette (moo-jet) (French for nun). The black eye in the center of the bean reminded some people of a nun’s head attire, worn as part of their habit.”
The United States Library of Congress writes that black-eyed peas had been growing for hundreds of years in places like China and India and were cultivated since pre-historic times. They are in fact related to the mung bean distantly.
However, by the time the United States started using them culinarily, the recipes had changed along with the times.
Liz Williams is a food historian, the founder of the National Food & Beverage Foundation and Southern Food and Beverage Museum and notes that in south Louisiana, many people put okra in their beans.
“We do put okra into everything. That tradition is a nod back to African roots. We started to see black-eyed peas on southern tables from the time enslaved Africans were brought here. They started as fodder for farm animals and the enslaved and became food for everyone.”
West African countries have a large selection of dishes utilizing black-eyed peas with recipes in Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria. However, the tradition of eating them at the prelude of a New Year is an ancient and varied tradition with many components that stretches across the globe.
In ancient Egypt, eating legumes showed humility and reverence towards the Gods. In present-day Sudan, the leaves of the black-eyed peas are eaten along with the peas. In Brazil and Nigeria, the peas are made fried into fritters, in a similar way that hot water cornbread is eaten in the Southern United States. In Sicily, lentils are eaten, because they represent fortune. In Sephardic Jewish culture of Syria, peas are eaten during Rosh Hashanah.
The Civil War is generally considered where the American tradition of eating black-eyed peas became widespread.
“The Union soldiers didn’t pay attention to the corn or black eyed peas. Those crops were all that was left for the southerners,” says Chef Raleigh.
While black-eyed peas are very nutritious, they hide a secret.
Liz Williams exposes black-eyed peas by saying, “they are not peas, they are actually beans. They are from a group called cow peas in Africa. They have all kinds of good vitamins, lots of protein and lots of fiber, so you can’t go wrong.”
Below is a recipe to Chef Sheri Raleigh’s famous black-eyed peas.