Wayne Hinshaw: New Year’s meal for good luck
Growing up in Randleman, my mother always made sure that we had our traditional meal on New Year’s Day of black-eyed peas, collard greens, cornbread, and pork for good luck for the coming year. I don’t think we had the meal because of superstition, as much as tradition. Who breaks with tradition and takes a chance on bad luck?
I remember the old legend about the special meal, but I never questioned the story behind the legend. I decided to do some research on the tradition and this is what I discovered.
There are a couple of different origins about the tradition of black-eyed peas. According to the Talmud written around 500 A.D., it was Jewish custom to eat black-eyed peas as part of the Rosh Hashanah celebration for the Jewish New Year in the autumn of the year. In the Jewish culture, this 1,500-year-old tradition might have traveled to America with migrating Jews coming to Georgia in the 1730s.
Another legend of the origin of the tradition coming to the South came about during the the movement of slaves from West Africa to America. Historian Jessica B. Harris writes that the black-eyed pea was domesticated 5,000 years ago all over Africa. The black-eyed pea traveled with the slaves on the slave ships as their food. Thus arriving in America.
After the black-eyed peas got to America in the South, how did it get associated with good luck?
During the Civil War, according to southern folklore, the idea of good luck and black-eyed peas came about when General Sherman’s Union Army marched across Georgia. The Union army pillaged the Confederates’ food supplies, eating all they could and taking all they could carry. The Union soldiers thought that the black-eyed peas were food for the animals and not for humans to eat. The Southerners felt that sparing the peas was good luck and kept them from starving during the winter. The slaves thought that the peas were a symbol of emancipation for African-Americans who were officially freed on New Years Day after the Civil War.
Another Civil War story associated with the pea happened in Mississippi, possibility in Vicksburg, where the town was cut off from food supplies by the Union Army. Facing starvation, the citizens had black-eyed peas to feed the cattle, so they starting eating the peas to survive.
Wherever the the lowly pea got its fame, there was a saying, “Eat poor on New Year’s Day and eat fat the rest of the year.”
The pea is symbolic of good luck and monetary gain. Of course, if you think of money, it is green. Thus greens as food are symbolic of money. The tradition calls for collard greens, but many eat boiled cabbage or sauerkraut, kale, chard, mustard greens, turnip greens or any leafy vegetable for good luck.
Most Southern meals included some type of pork already. Many would eat from the ham bone, pig’s feet or pig jowl. My mother always talked about hog jowl at New Year’s but we never had it for our meal. We would have pork chops or barbecue.
There is a phrase, “Peas for pennies, greens for dollars, and cornbread for gold.”
The Southern tradition is that this meal will bring you good luck for the entire year if you eat it on New Year’s Day.
In Salisbury, there a few restaurants that cook up the special meal only on New Year’s Day, and it is a big hit. Some restaurants have black-eyed peas, greens and pork barbecue or pork chops every day, if you choose to order from the menu.
Somewhere through the years, someone added the foods that you do not eat on New Year’s Day because they cause bad luck. If you are so lucky as to get to eat lobster, some say you will have a year of bad luck because a lobster can walk backwards causing you luck to go backwards. Some say eating chicken on the first day of the year could lead to a setback because they scratch backwards, and with wings your luck could fly away.
It’s your choice, but don’t say that I didn’t warn you. It is best to go for good luck.