A few days after the Christmas media frenzy subsided, I was presented with an array of unappealing afternoon entertainment options. This led me to tune into the Food Network for a block of mindless viewing. An episode of Down Home with the Neelys was on, with the cooking couple, Pat and Gina Neely, demonstrating recipes for updating Southern classics and grilled favorites. Halfway through the thirty-minute show, Pat Neely, one of the chefs, announced that he and his wife Gina Neely were making black-eyed peas and cornbread after the commercial break. During his pitch for the dish, he placed an emphasis on the need to serve black-eyed peas and cornbread together, no matter the occasion. It was then I realized I had forgotten to complete a simple, but important task. In my family’s numerous grocery shopping trips in preparation for Christmas dinner, we had completely forgotten to buy the ingredients necessary for the New Year’s Day meal. My Virginia upbringing dictated that most of the menus at family gatherings have a heavy Southern influence. While every holiday menu for the year was varied, our New Year’s Day menu stayed constant. At the beginning of each year, we sit down and have a traditional Southern meal meant to bring good luck for the coming year. The main dish is a hearty serving of black-eyed peas paired with a slice of golden cornbread, symbolizing the luck and fortune we hoped to have in the coming here.
Black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas, are members of the legume family and are actually a bean rather than a pea. Originating in West Africa, they were brought over to America by slave ships in the late 1600’s. They were a food staple for the slaves, but the European Americans found the bean lowly and used it as feed for cattle instead of eating it themselves. Although black-eyed peas have been eaten for good fortune since ancient times, it was not until the mid-1800’s that the concept caught on with Americans. While there are varying accounts of how the black-eyed pea found a niche in Southern society, a story centered around the Civil War is the most prominent. It is said that the residents of Vicksburg, Mississippi resorted to eating the cowpeas to avoid starvation during a forty-seven day siege. The cowpeas and corn were ignored by the Union troops and seen as unimportant crops; they were one of the few not destroyed during the siege. This experience humbled the residents and the bean soon became a significant part of Southern cuisine (Are black-eyed peas really peas?)
Another popular origin story is focused more on religion. The inexpensive and modest black-eyed peas represented a person’s humility for the year and prevented them from the wrath of the heavens that a vain person may incur. In present times, the black-eyed pea has a monetary symbolism, with the peas representing coins and other side dishes, such as collard greens and cornbread symbolizing dollar bills and gold, respectively (Blackeyed Pea).
Just as milk and cookies go together, black-eyed peas and cornbread are almost always served together in a meal. Originally a Native American dish, white settlers adapted it to their diet due to its versatile nature and inexpensive cost. Cornbread is commonly prepared in three different ways in Southern cooking. The hoecake is a large and flat bread that is baked in a griddle. The Johnnycake is usually made in a skillet and resembles a corn pancake. Hush puppies are formed by dropping the batter in a ball shape and deep frying it. For New Year’s Day, the hoecake or Johnnycake type of cornbread is preferred because of the sought after golden color and its ability to sop up the bean broth left over from a huge helping of black-eyed peas (Wambold 1).
Like all types of cooking, making a delicious and traditional meal of black-eyed peas and cornbread is a science. The primary complaints with black-eyed peas are a mushy texture and bland flavor if cooked incorrectly. This issue alone stops people, including my own mother, from attempting to cook the cowpeas on such an important holiday. To prevent this from happening, simmering is recommended instead of boiling the beans at a high heat for a long period. Another less important issue is what to flavor the beans with during the cooking process. For a more authentic flavor, fatback and hog jowls are used as opposed to the turkey necks that have appeared in recent years for a healthier option. Cornbread also faces the same issues of flavoring. It can be sweetened with honey or left plain. Here in Texas, cornbread has a spicy kick to it with the help of jalapeños.
Even though my immediate family and I are separated from my extended family by 1,600 miles, we take care to carry out the New Year’s Day tradition each year. A low key meal of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and sausage help us usher in the new year and hope for much luck and fortune during our future endeavors.
“Are black-eyed peas really peas?,”Science Reference Services (2011): 1, http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/blackeyedpeas.html (accessed January 4, 2012).
“Blackeyed Pea,” Aggie Horticulture, http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/vegetables/blackeye.html (accessed January 4, 2012).
Wambold, Hannah. “Cornbread: History & Recipe from the MS Pine Belt.” Hattiesburg American Foods Examiner, Oct 26, 2010. http://www.examiner.com/american-foods-in-hattiesburg/cornbread-history-recipe-of-the-pine-belt (accessed January 4, 2012).