Collard greens and black-eyed peas: The history of why we eat them on New Year's

Collard greens and black-eyed peas: The history of why we eat them on New Year's

All across the globe, people will eat special dishes or toast celebratory flutes of Champagne to ring in the New Year, hoping to usher in luck and positive energy in the year to come. 

While Filipinos are chowing down on long noodles for a long life and Spaniards are popping 12 grapes in their mouths at midnight, some Americans will sit down to a steamy plate of collard greens and black-eyed peas. But why has eating this Southern dish become a New Year's tradition? 

How black-eyed peas and collard greens became a symbol of luck

Legend has it that collard greens and black-eyed peas are said to represent a prosperous new year, with the greens symbolizing cash and peas coins. American currency, however, is nothing like the dark green hue of cooked collards and at no point have we used puny, white pea-sized balls as change. While some may still eat collards and peas for this reason to ring in the new year, the tradition dates hundreds of years back in American history and even further back across the Atlantic. 

Black-eyed peas were cultivated in Africa over 5,000 years ago, historian Jessica B. Harris explained in her New York Times op-ed, "Prosperity Starts with a Pea," in December 2010. In the 1700s, black-eyed peas, exported during the transatlantic slave trade, were planted in the Carolinas and "eaten by enslaved Africans and poorer whites," Harris wrote. And the foods eaten by slaves eventually moved their way up to the master's table, where black-eyed peas became a staple ingredient in the dish Hoppin' John, made with black-eyed peas, rice and pork. 

Who is John? John is not the known chef or inventor of this dish, but rather just a mystical source of the name of the dish still found on menus and tabletops in the Southern U.S. to this day. 

So why do we eat black-eyed peas on New Year's specifically? 

"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," Harris wrote. 

One theory (which has also been called a myth) is that during the Civil War, after the Union Army raided the Confederate food supplies, all the Confederate troops had to survive the winter was black-eyed peas, which thus would have been eaten on December 31 and seen as lucky, for sustaining the troops through the winter.

The lucky origins of black-eyed peas, however, date back to ancient times, eaten for luck in North Africa for the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashannah) and seemingly dating back to the era of the Babylonian Talmud. The Sephardic Jewish tradition of eating black-eyed peas for fertility and luck continues through today for the Jewish New Year. 

Rafia Zafar, professor of English, African and African-American studies, and American Culture Studies, at Washington University in St. Louis postulates that eating black-eyed peas on New Year's may be a "Southern American conjunction of West African and Sephardic cuisine," she said via email. He also noted that leafy greens are likened to dollar bills in America, though greens are eaten for luck in various other countries, too. Another interesting connection: Jews eat bitter greens during Passover as a reminder of the bitter times when the Israelites were enslaved. 

Zafar thinks that this may all tie together, although the origins of the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's specifically remains unclear, she can see one clear reason the dish hasn't ceased in popularity: The two ingredients taste great together. 

"The habit of black-eyed peas and collards may not be one that the younger generation — that is, millennials like my son — follow religiously — but who knows?," Zafar said. "He's a vegetarian, so he certainly eats rice and beans a lot, as do many in his generation (and mine for that matter), so maybe in a few years he'll realize he needs to cook these items at least annually." 

Do people still really keep up the collard greens and black-eyed peas tradition on New Year's?

"Heck yes they do!" Dan Gillotte, Chief Executive Grocer at Austin's Wheatsville Food Co-op said in an email. "We're proud to keep the southern tradition alive each New Year's at Wheatsville. As we understand it, black eyed peas and collard greens eaten on New Year's is said to symbolize prosperity, good luck and good fortune for the coming year." 

And though our cash looks nothing like the stewed greens, Gillotte said the legend is still in place. "Some folks consider the black-eyed peas to represent coins and the greens to represent folding money a la cash, while others simply consider it general good luck to eat them," he said. He noted that others may eat variations on pork and greens for the holiday, but "black-eyed peas and greens are the king here in Texas and the southern U.S." 

There is, of course, one more reason to eat the two together on New Year's: nutrition. "At Wheatsville, we also think it starts the New Year on a healthy footing since beans and greens are a solid foundation to anyone's good diet," Gillotte said. "Some people like to add cornbread to the mix and we won't argue against cornbread!"

"Peas for pennies, greens for dollars and cornbread for gold," an old Southern saying goes. Hey, the ingredients are cheap enough, why not try to eat yourself to prosperity?