We take many things seriously in the south; none more seriously than food. There have been family feuds that last generations, all started over someone eating Aunt Nancy’s Pecan Pie before taking a bite of Aunt Sue’s. It is not enough to have both slices on your plate; they are watching your reaction to see which one goes in your mouth first! Safest bet is to put both on your fork at the same time. Yes, it gives you an incredibly full mouth, but will save future generations from a Hatfield and McCoy’s situation.
Situations are taken to completely new level when tradition and food collide. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I know most of you have been busy digging through your recipe box, pulling out the cards for all of your traditional meal necessitates. Christmas at my house starts as soon as we get back from Thanksgiving. It is mandatory that Mama’s divinity be made (which is so temperamental, that the first nice days are not spent outside enjoying fall, but inside with the windows shut, praying to God that it sets up properly!). Mimi’s Wassail comes next and is served to every guest who crosses the threshold. Finally preparations for Nanny’s green salad (it is basically a Jell-o mold, but everyone has always called it green salad, so for eternity that is what is shall be called!) are started. There are many other food traditions that we observe and those of you in strict Southern homes know what I am talking about, but today I want to shed some light on the food tradition that is New Year’s in the South.
All good Southerner’s know that you are supposed to eat black-eyed peas, greens, and corn bread for New Year’s, and you may even know that black eyed peas symbolize luck, greens will bring you money in the year, and cornbread is for gold, something we don’t use every day anymore, but who doesn’t want a little more jewelry! I also like to add pork to my New Year’s Day menu, mostly because it is a meat that pairs well with these sides. However, some say since it comes from an animal “rich” in fat, it will bring prosperity in the coming year. I am Southern, and cannot pass up believing in any lore that makes sense in so many ways! It goes with my “traditional” New Year’s dishes and could make me rich in one way or another (richness does not always have to be monetary, chocolate is rich too! I do not want to take any chances of missing any sort of riches!)
So now that we know what these delectable delights will bring you in the coming year, let us look at where they come from. As my Grandmothers will tell you, you will never know where you are going if you do not know where you came from!
First up are the black-eyed peas. They are probably the most widely known Southern Food Tradition for New Years, and most people who do not do the whole meal, at least make some sort of black-eyed pea dish. My Mom does them with ham hocks and makes a giant pot of them that simmers on the stove all day, and then has leftovers for days to come! While this is her favorite preparation and the one that I grew up with, this year I have decided to go with a Hoppin John. A dish that consists of black-eyed peas, rice, seasoning meat (because no one really likes the way any peas or beans taste on their own!), onion, and various spices, depending on your recipe and family tastes. Supposedly, if you have leftovers of this dish, you eat it on the second day of January and its name magically changes to “Skippin Jenny.” This is supposed to prove your frugality to the Southern Tradition Gods, and give you a better chance for prosperity in the coming year. Again, I am not taking any chances, and who doesn’t love a good excuse for leftovers!
Black-eyed peas, also known as purple hulls, where first domesticated for human consumption in West Africa many, many moons ago, as my Dad would say. Many of the southern dishes that we enjoy today have roots that originated in Africa and were brought across the ocean on slave ships. However, this is one that was seen as early as the original colonies in Virginia, so it’s history started here before the slave trade was in full force. It gained popularity when George Washington Carver, (no, I didn’t add an extra last name to our first President. He was a black farmer who introduced crop rotation to farming to improve soil quality) started using the plant, which is technically a legume, to add nitrogen to the soil in which it is grown. It is planted in rotating years with another crop, which sucked nitrogen out of the soil. As Southerner’s, we like to take credit for anything that seems like a good idea, however, eating black-eyed peas for luck dates back to the time of Babylonia. They were eaten during Rosh Hashanah with many other foods thought to bring good luck and prosperity in the New Year. The lore that we are probably more accustomed too has roots that start with the Civil War. As Union troops stormed through the South, destroying everything of value that could not be carried with them, they would burn crops, hoping to leave the south with very little to eat. They didn’t bother burning the fields of black-eyed peas, because they thought them feed for the livestock, and since they had either eaten or taken a huge majority of the livestock with them, they didn’t waste the time burning these fields. Silly Northerners! They had no idea how resourceful Southerners could be! Being a civilization that finds meaning and tradition in everything, these proud people picked their looked over peas and thought….what good luck it is for us that this crop was left behind. Obviously, these Union Soldiers had not seen Scarlett in the field proclaiming, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again!” After that, black-eyed peas were eaten for luck and prosperity at many events and the tradition really took hold as a New Year’s Day dish.
Next on our list are greens. They come in many varieties; collards, mustards, kale, and turnips being the most popular in the south. Today I am focusing on collards, mostly because they are my favorite and what I plan on eating to bring me money in 2015! Some, like my Mom, prefer the spiciness of mustards, and my husband has an affinity for kale (he is from the North, so I am just happy he will eat any variety of greens!), but collards have spoken to me since I was a young girl. I remember my Papa washing big messes of them in the wash sink at the barn, before they were allowed in the house. Being a heat loving plant, they grow very well in all areas of the South, including Florida. However, the little fibers on the edible leaves collected the Florida sand and refused to let go! They needed to be washed and rinsed several times, and the leaves needed to be stripped from the bitter stems before they could set foot in my Mama’s kitchen to be cooked down all day with ham hocks and seasonings. It was always a lot of work, but let me tell you, there’s no better meal! When I was little, I would laugh at my Mom, drinking the pot liquor (the juice produced when greens and meat are simmered in water over low heat ALL day) right from the stove. I was too little to understand that this wasn’t a traditional libation and I always had great respect for how well she held her “liquor”. Collards have been on the culinary scene for a long time. And when I say long, I’m talking back to 8 AD, when Roman poet, Ovid, wrote of his love for them cooked with none other than seasoned meat. The combination was said to be food of the Gods. No wonder we love them in the South so much! Collards first made it to the United States during the slave trade, when they were brought over in the hulls of ships. African’s, like Southerner’s revere food, and even when faced with the danger of being forced onto ships to come to an unknown land, they managed to bring the seeds of some of their favorite foods. Collard Greens were one of these foods. Greens were seen in the original colonies, picked up along the way by the original settlers, but they did not really take off as a staple crop until they were grown in the south; probably because they prefer the climate of the south to grow, or because these original settlers did not think to pair them with ham hocks! Slaves on the great plantations of the south grew these greens and when the plantation owners noticed that the cooked leaves resembled green folded dollar bills, they obviously had to try them! Southerners love anything that combines good tasting food, money, and tradition, so adding greens to the New Year’s Day routine to bring money in the coming year just makes sense!
We can thank the Native American’s for our “gold” New Year’s Day tradition found in cornbread. They were the first to make this quick bread and we adapted for our needs of sopping up pot liquor from our greens. Whether you prefer cornbread in the form of a muffin or straight from the skillet, we can all agree that it is one of the South’s favorite accompaniments. You can add different flavorings to the bread to meet your needs. Jalapenos and cheese are common in Texas; some people (not my people, but I am not judging) add sugar for sweeter bread; but my favorite additive is cracklings. Not to be confused with pork rinds, cracklings are chunks of pigskin produced during the rendering process. Pork rinds are airier and can be eaten like a chip (ok, I eat cracklings like chips too!) so the biggest difference is the texture. We love something that can be a vessel for so many uses and cornbread fits that bill perfectly. I think cornbread found it’s place on the New Year’s Day table because it is needed to sop up all juices produced from the black-eyed peas and greens, and since it was golden in color, we just automatically assumed that eating it would bring us gold (or fortune) in the coming year! Not that we needed another excuse to have bread on the table, it’s use for sopping up pot liquor trumps any lore that could be made, why not add a fun story and tradition (two things we are never short on down here!) to eating cornbread on New Year’s Day!
As you can see from the previous three foods, pork plays a giant roll in Southern cuisine, so why not give it a prominent place on our New Year’s tradition list. Some people believe that the more pork you eat the more monetary luck you will have in the New Year (remember, we see this as an animal whose meat is “rich” from all the fat it contains). Obviously, some sort of pork product is included in each of our dishes, so you are probably wondering how we can pack more pork into this meal. Well pork lovers unite! It is possible, just cook some more pork! Ham, pork chops, pork loin, and pork roast are just a few dishes that pair well with black-eyed peas, greens, and cornbread. An interesting fact that I picked up while doing a little research for this post is that some believe eating pork on New Year’s Day represents progress. Since pigs cannot turn their necks around to see behind them, they are always looking forward and consequently into the future, always making progress in some sort of forward fashion. By consuming pork, you are allowing yourself forward progress in the coming year.
Whether you believe in the South’s Superstitions about New Year’s Day foods, or just love really good food, you can now have a better understanding as to why we Southerner’s eat the way we do on the first day of the year! I hope that your black-eyed peas bring you luck, your greens bring you paper money, your cornbread brings you gold, and your pork helps you progress forward in 2015!