My family makes Traditional Black-eyed Peas every New Year’s Day for good luck. And black-eyed peas are also the prime ingredient in Hoppin’ John which spices up the peas with lots of onion, hot sauce, sometimes chili powder or jalapeno, and adds the rice right into the pot.
Like its tasty counterpart, Southern grits smothered in butter and grated cheddar cheese, the reputation of the black-eyed pea seems to lie on the tongue of the beholder. Those who did not grow up eating black-eyed peas are prone to think they have an earthy taste (some might say like eating dirt!). But I love the taste of the funny looking bean, and the smell of a big old pot simmering on the kitchen stove takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen.
Black-eyed peas are related to the mung bean (according to the Library of Congress) and have been cultivated since prehistoric times in China and India. They were brought to the West Indies from West Africa by slaves around 1674. And the ancient Greeks and Romans preferred them to chickpeas. Black-eyed peas were considered field crops to the Northerners in the War Between The States and were often left behind in the fields. They became associated with being a humble food and fed many of the Confederate troops.
Wherever the origins of the black-eyed pea, the Good Luck tradition has been carried down from generation to generation. The idea is that if you start out the New Year dining in humility, you will only become more prosperous as the year moves on. Some cook the peas up along with greens and cornbread. According to the myth of fortune, the peas represent coins, the greens symbolize paper money, and cornbread stands for gold.
I imagine the sales of black-eyed peas skyrocket this time of year. A friend called last night to wish Liz and I a Happy New Year. When I told him I was cooking up a pot of black-eyed peas, he said, “Hey, did you add the penny to the pot?” “Penny? What penny?” Liz asked. It wasn’t part of the tradition in our family, but some would add a penny to the pot of black-eyed peas and the person who received the dished up coin would be showered with good fortune all year long.
My mother makes the simple, traditional recipe. And that’s the one I’m including below. I talked to her on the phone yesterday and am dishing up all the little tidbits she mentioned. If you’d like to read more history and recipe variations for black-eyed peas, I’m including all the research links at the end of the post.
I hope you’re warm and celebrating the New Year. It is a time of humble new beginnings, a chance to start over with a clean slate. May your New Year be prosperous and plenty. And full of rich family traditions.
Traditional Black-Eyed Peas
1 package of black-eyed peas (about 2 cups)
1 ham hock
a pinch of salt and pepper
I doubled my recipe because I bought in bulk and had soaked way too many peas. (You should have heard Mom laughing!) The ham hock was from the Wedge Co-Op and ran about 1.46 lbs.
In our family we serve the peas over white rice. Some people prefer brown. You can also spoon them over cornbread (and include the juice). Whatever you prefer to eat with your peas, you’ll need to include that item in your Shopping List.
Rinse peas in large pot
One package of dried peas is about 2 cups (4 cups soaked)
- Sort out any pieces of grit, hard or misshapen peas, or anything that looks like it just doesn’t belong there! Bad peas usually float to the top. In the old days, peas from the field had to be sorted for worms and other field critters. This is less of a problem these days.
Let stand overnight (at least 8 hours)
Drain soak water, rinse peas in fresh cold water
Add 6 cups of hot water (or enough to cover the top of the peas)
Add the pork. In our family, this is a ham hock. But you can add fatback, a little bacon grease, or just bits of bacon. We use a ham hock because most of the flavor comes from the bone. Some families saw off pieces of bone from a cooked ham and use that in their black-eyed peas.
- Cover peas
Simmer gently with lid tilted until desired tenderness is reached (1 1/2 or 2 hours)
- If you forget to soak the peas the night before, you can do something called a Quick Soak:
Add a pound of peas to six to eight cups water
Boil 3 minutes, remove from heat
Let stand one hour
My sister said she adds Goya ham-flavored concentrate to her black-eyed peas and ham hock to spice them up. It’s like a ham bouillon. She said to keep adding water to the peas if needed to avoid them turning to mush.
She also follows the Northern New Year’s tradition of making a pork loin rolled in sage, rosemary, and parsley and adding sauerkraut. I guess she’ll have double good luck this year!
Happy New Year!
-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, January 1st, 2008