December 31, 2015

Culture: Black-Eyed Peas

I was delighted to read in yesterday’s NY Times Food section writer Kim Severson’s ode to the lowly black-eyed pea.   Severson explains that in the U.S. South, revelers put black-eyed peas (also known as “field peas” and “cow peas”) on their New Year’s menus to ensure luck and wealth.  She rightly noted that the Southern tradition has roots in West Africa and African American foodways.

Dried Black-Eyed Peas

I can’t remember a January 1 without black-eyed peas.  My roots are in Dallas, and my father, 89, who grew up in Waco, instilled in my brother, sister, and me the necessity of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.  His promise: we’d surely earn a dollar in the coming year for each pea consumed.  We traveled to Hawaii over New Year’s when I was in high school.  My dad stowed at least one can of black-eyed peas in his suitcase to be eaten — cold, with plastic forks — while we were out of town.  In Australia after college, friends helped me purchase a bag of dried black-eyed peas, which they’d never before encountered.  We accidentally overcooked the peas but nonetheless consumed the mush, out of respect for tradition.

I’m not African American.  I live in New England.  I’m Jewish.  But the Southern ritual with roots in pre-slavery Africa has become my own, just as much as blessing and lighting candles on Friday nights.  This is how culture works.  A superstitious Jewish kid growing up in the rural South wards off poverty and bad luck by eating black-eyed peas, passes down the practice to his kids, who, in turn, insist on eating the dish with their families every year, no matter that they no longer live in the South.

The recipes Severson included in her piece in the Times are versions of Hoppin’ John — hot dishes stewed with collards, cured pork, and the like.  When with access to a kitchen, my mother always prepared Helen Corbitt’s delectable cold recipe. Don’t know about this formidable chef of Neiman-Marcus fame?  Hers is a story worth remembering, just as much as the origins of black-eyed pea eating, so be curious and read:




I include, below, Corbitt’s recipe, taken from Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook (Boston, MA: The Riverside Press/Houghton Mifflin Company, c1957, 1959), 13-14.  (Curious that this Southern woman’s work found a home in Massachusetts.)  I have yet again whipped up a big batch.  It’s resting in the fridge.  Can’t wait to drain and serve tomorrow to ring in 2016.  Good and good for ya!  Happy New Year!


Pickled Black-Eyed Peas (Helen Corbitt)

In the South the black-eyed pea is the traditional good-luck food for New Year’s Day and a good Texan eats them some time during the day to insure prosperity for the coming year — whether he likes them or not.  I came to Texas wide-eyed and innocent about such shenanigans — I didn’t like the peas either.  So-o-o, I pickled them.  Since then I serve few parties at any time of the year without them.  And the men, how they love them!

2 No. 2 cans cooked dried black-eyed peas

1 cup salad oil

1/4 cup wine vinegar

1 clove garlic — or garlic seasoning

1/4 cup thinly sliced onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cracked or freshly ground black pepper

Drain liquid from the peas.  Places peas in pan or bowl, add remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly.  Store in jar in refrigerator and remove garlic bud after one day.  Store at least two days and up to two weeks before eating.  You’ll need a plate and fork for these.  Red kidney beans and garbanzos, do the same.

[N.B.: I use a different ratio of oil:vinegar, reducing the oil by about half.  I always use red wine vinegar and leave several slightly mashed cloves of garlic in the mix until I serve.  Red onion is my preference — for taste as well as festive color.  Make sure to drain the peas well before serving — pour them from the container into a strainer or colander, putting a bowl underneath to catch the pickling liquid. CC. ]