An op-ed writer in the Times writes about the black-eyed pea's place as a food item of good fortune at the opening of the New Year.
Just as nobody is sure of the origin of the name Hoppin’ John, no one seems quite certain why the dish has become associated with luck, or New Year’s. Some white Southerners claim that black-eyed peas saved families from starvation during the Union Army’s siege of Vicksburg in the Civil War. “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” suggests that it may come from Sephardic Jews, who included the peas in their Rosh Hashana menu as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.
For African-Americans, the connection between beans and fortune is surely complex. Perhaps, because dried black-eyed peas can be germinated, having some extra on hand at the New Year guaranteed sustenance provided by a new crop of the fast-growing vines. The black-eyed pea and rice combination also forms a complete protein, offering all of the essential amino acids. During slavery, one ensured of such nourishment was lucky indeed.
Whatever the exact reason, black-eyed peas with rice form one corner of the African-American New Year’s culinary trinity: greens, beans and pig. The greens symbolize greenbacks (or “folding money”) and may be collards, mustards or even cabbage. The pork is a remembrance of our enslaved forebears, who were given the less noble parts of the pig as food. But without the black-eyed pea, which journeyed from Africa to the New World, it just isn’t New Year’s — at least not a lucky one.
Any day that includes black-eyed peas rich with pigmeat, a side of creamy cole slaw and a cast-iron skillet full of cornbread is not a bad day.