I had my blackeye peas for lunch on New Year’s Day. Did you? Superstitions are hard things to shake. Most of us would never profess to believing in magic, but it is always a bit startling to see how easily we fall into lockstep with superstitious notions that must date back to a time when we didn’t question what our mommas told us.
I often find myself knocking on wood, not because I really believe this simple rap of knuckles on wood will ward off some ill, but because it falls in the general category of “might help, can’t hurt.” It is difficult to disprove a negative, and fortunately, most of the time bad things don’t happen. So, every time something bad doesn’t happen, we reinforce our little rituals.
Which brings me to blackeye peas — often referred to as blackeyed peas — for New Year’s celebration. New Year’s Day was never much of a holiday when I was growing up and no effort was made to prepare a special meal. But we always had blackeye peas with Mom urging us to eat a few because they would bring us good luck for the coming year.
Before her death, my mother told me she always had blackeyes on the first day of the year because her mother served them. My family has lived in Oklahoma since the 1890s and before that were mostly of northern extraction, with one maternal line coming in from Virginia and later Missouri. Somewhere the blackeye tradition was absorbed into our family.
New Year's is one of the most ancient holidays, having been celebrated for least 4,000 years. Julius Caesar, in 46 BC invented his Julian Calendar and established January 1 as the beginning of the New Year. The date — unlike the Chinese calendar, which is based on a lunar cycle — had no correlation to the winter solstice or the phase of the moon, but January 1 made Caesar’s calendar work our correctly.
The origins of lucky foods to celebrate the new year are obscure, but the tradition is observed in a number of cultures. In seafaring nations pickled herring is a must for the silver skin of the fish translates to silver in the pocket. My neighbors are of Scandinavian heritage and hail from South Dakota. They follow the fish tradition. In Germanic nations cabbage (some say mustard or turnip greens) — are favored because they are said to symbolize paper currency. In Japan noodles at midnight are a tradition.
But in the South, blackeye peas are the lucky food of choice. But even here traditions vary. Around Atlanta it is common to slip a dime into the peas, and the person who finds the dime — assuming they don’t choke on it — will have an especially rewarding year. One Internet user tells that in her family all the silver coins were left on the windowsill overnight so they could be allowed to breed.
Like so many traditions of this type, no one is certain why blackeye peas became the lucky food of the South. One explanation is that when General Sherman’s troops marched through Georgia in November and December of 1864, foraging livestock and plantation stores as they went, individual stashes of blackeye peas stored in the homes of the enslaved people may have been all the food that was left behind. At the time, the blackeye was called cowpea, for its principal use was as part of the ration for animal feed. But when it is all you have, by default it becomes lucky. My great grandfather, Private John Klingaman Jr. of the 88th Indiana Infantry, was part of Sherman’s Army, entering Savannah on December 22, 1864. He was seriously wounded a few months later in North Carolina, and that wound — at least by family lore — led to our settlement in Oklahoma.
I discussed this weighty issue with University of Arkansas pea breeder, Dr. Ted Morelock, before he died in 2009. From him I learned a disturbing fact. Almost all of the blackeye peas sold, both canned and frozen, are actually pinkeyed, purple-hulled southern peas, not blackeyes. The two peas taste the same and look enough alike to be indistinguishable, but pinkeye selections leave behind a visually more pleasing broth when cooked. At this time, reports are not in on what effect the switch has had on luckiness of Southerners.