What Do Black-Eyed Peas Have to Do With New Year's Day?
The Talmud, the Emancipation Proclamation, and a whole lotta luck
A few years ago on New Year’s Day morning, I came back to my parents’ from my friend’s house, where I had learned the night before that whiskey sours and Champagne and risotto and chicken and something Funfetti-based in large quantities are not always an ideal combination. Needless to say, I was not feeling so hot from my evening of overindulgence. Fortunately for me, I had forgotten about one important aspect of New Year’s at the Welsh home: delicious, fortifying, bacon-flecked black-eyed peas. My mom, who grew up in the South, makes them every year, encouraging anyone who walks in the door to have at least a spoonful or two from the simmering pot for luck and prosperity in the new year.
The origins of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day go way back. According to Serious Eats, most historians think black-eyed peas arrived in America—and became an American New Year’s Day tradition—in one of two ways. The first is that Sephardic Jewish colonists brought this tradition with them to the American South in the early 1700s. Due to a mistranslation in the Talmud, which confused rubia (fenugreek seeds) with lubia (black-eyed peas), Jews had included the beans on the Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year, table for centuries. When they arrived in the States, the tradition continued and spread.
The second is that black-eyed peas, which were domesticated in Africa more than 5000 years ago, came to America through slave ships far before Jewish colonists arrived. Black-eyed peas became a staple in the diets of enslaved people across the South. And after the Civil War, when many other crops were destroyed, black-eyed peas remained and all Southerners began eating the legume. Black-eyed peas are quick and easy to grow, and are remarkably nutrient-rich. As such, they were godsend for the region, especially during the era of Reconstruction. It’s thought that black-eyed peas further earned their “lucky” status because they were eaten by newly freed people in celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863.
On New Year’s Day black-eyed peas are eaten in a stew called Hoppin’ John, which is usually a combination of black-eyed peas, rice, and bacon or ham hock, typically served alongside collard greens and cornbread. Each aspect of this trio represents prosperity for the year ahead— “Peas for pennies, greens for dollars, cornbread for gold,” as the saying goes. Though standard fare for the South, this tradition is becoming more popular in other parts of the country as well.
When I sat down on the couch in my parents’ living room that morning, feeling a bit worse for wear, my mom handed me a giant bowl of her black-eyed peas, and I dug in. The beans were creamy from simmering so long. The onion and celery had silkily disappeared into the stew, but the bacon hadn’t—there were little savory flecks punctuating each bite I took.
Every bit of me felt better the more I ate—headache fading, stomach calming—and maybe it was coincidence, or being so sweetly taken care of, or having had a fun night with some of my favorite people on the planet, but I felt just a little bit luckier, too.