The story behind traditional New Year’s food

January 1, 2014 

Growing up in the South, it was a requirement in my mama’s house, as it is in almost every Southern household, to have a meal of pork, greens, black-eyed peas and corn bread on New Year’s Day.

I can still remember the smells of fresh turnip greens and black-eyed peas simmering on the stove and a juicy ham baking in the oven. Like many of you, I have always enjoyed these Southern delicacies.

Have you ever wondered how the tradition of eating pork, greens and black-eyed peas developed or what the different foods represent?

Black-eyed peas

Black-eyed peas are perhaps the most well-known New Year’s Day dish in the South. The origins of the black-eyed pea itself date back to prehistoric times.

The pea, which is technically a bean and not a pea, is believed to have been domesticated in Africa 5,000 years ago. Later, the beans reached the Americas via slave ships.

The beans were utilized as food for enslaved passengers aboard the ships. One of the earliest records of black-eyed peas being planted in colonial times in the United States dates back to the early 1700s in the Carolinas.

Black-eyed pea plants were often planted along the border of fields to enrich the soil with nitrogen. Cattle could also graze on the plant stem and vine, leading to the alternative names of field peas and cow peas for the plant.

Eating black-eyed peas on the first day of the year is believed to bring good luck in the coming year. Although exactly how the black-eyed pea became associated with good luck and prosperity is in question, it is believed that the tradition began during the Civil War.

Black-eyed peas were the only food spared by Gen. William T. Sherman and his Union troops during their destructive march through the South. Union troops found the beans to be fit only for use as animal fodder.

Thus, black-eyed peas helped save surviving Confederates from starvation and were thereafter regarded as a symbol of good luck.

The tradition of consuming black-eyed peas in honor of the New Year may also be tied to Jewish culture. The Talmud lists the small white bean as a food to be eaten during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for good fortune.

Sephardic Jews arrived in the American South in the early 18th century. Their culture and traditions likely mingled with those of African slaves and other colonial residents to spread the practice of eating black-eyed peas in celebration of the New Year.

Greens

The greens that are eaten on New Year’s Day represent wealth as they are flat and green like paper money. In the South, the types of greens commonly consumed are cabbage, collards, mustard greens and turnip greens. Greens are cooked slowly and are often seasoned with ham hock or bacon pieces.

Pork

Pork has long been a celebratory food in many cultures. Throughout history, the amount of pigs and other livestock that a family owned was a sign of the family’s financial status. The ability to own and slaughter a pig was regarded as a symbol of prosperity. Therefore, pork is still eaten today in both the southern United States and many other countries in hopes of prosperity and a bountiful harvest during the upcoming year.

Pigs are also symbols of progress in folklore. The animals move forward while using their snout to root for food and symbolize forward and progressive movement into the year ahead.

Even if you are not superstitious, it is worth noting that greens, black-eyed peas, and small amounts of pork are very nutritious foods. Consuming dark, leafy greens and beans can help us all get a healthy start to our new year.

Greens, particularly, mustard, spinach, kale, turnip and collards are rich in vitamins A, C, K and folate, and contain calcium and potassium.

The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that adults eat 2-3 cups of vegetables each day. Both greens and black-eyed peas can help us meet the recommended intake of vegetables.

Black-eyed peas and other beans may also be used as substitutes for meat in the protein foods group. With 7 grams of protein per one half cup serving of frozen, boiled beans, black-eyed peas are an excellent source of plant protein. The beans provide zinc and iron, which help keep our immune system functioning properly and allow us to carry oxygen in our blood.

Black-eyed peas are also excellent sources of dietary fiber, with 5 grams of dietary fiber, which is 20 percent of the recommended daily value, per one-half cup serving. Diets that are rich in foods containing fiber, such as beans and vegetables, may reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

This year when you sit down to enjoy your New Year’s Day meal, I hope that you will think about not only the history behind the New Year’s Day tradition of eating pork, greens and black-eyed peas, but also the nutritional benefits that these foods can provide to keep you and your family healthy in the year ahead.

Rebecca Creasy is the Houston County Extension agent for food and nutrition and family and consumer sciences. Contact her at 478-987-2028 or beccac@uga.edu.

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