A symbol of good luck? Feed for livestock? Soul food? A replacement for caviar?
These are some of the associations one may evoke when thinking of “black-eyed peas.”
For me, being sheltered from Southern comfort food until my adult life, black-eyed peas was just the name of a restaurant my parents drove by from time to time, and my young, active mind imagined a restaurant filled with dishes made with these mysterious, but surely amazing peas.
But what is a black-eyed pea? Is it a pea at all?
Contrary to the name, black-eyed peas are not considered peas, but beans, a term that refers to legumes with edible seeds or pods, not classified as peas or lentils.
Across cultures and individuals, black-eyed peas have gone by many names. More often than not, the names describe the appearance of the mature or dried form of the pale colored black-eyed pea that contains a black spot or “eye” in the center. Originally, the bean went by the name “mogette,” the French word for a nun, due to the likeness of the bean to a nun’s attire. Some have referred to the bean as a “goat pea,” or mistaken it for “frijol ojo de cabra,” translated from Spanish to “goat’s eye bean.”
Regardless of the name used to describe this one-spot bean (which is green when fresh and growing), the bean may have symbolized good luck and prosperity for the superstitious and doctrinal alike for many centuries.
The first association of black-eyed peas with good fortune dates back to a 500 CE compilation of the Babylonian Talmud where a rabbi, Abaye, instructed Jews to eat black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, as a way to invoke good luck.
Two other legends stem from Civil War times in the southern United States.
During one incident, legend has it that General William T. Sherman’s army pillaged the Confederate Army’s food supply, but left behind salted pork and black-eyed peas considering themselves “above” eating what they considered animal feed. The Confederate soldiers, on the contrary, considered themselves lucky to possess the salted pork and nutritious black-eyed peas that helped feed their bodies during a winter that otherwise would have surely led to starvation.
The second legend also gains relevance in the American South, where, African-American slaves, who considered black-eyed peas a symbol of their good fortune, were freed on New Year’s Day following the Civil War.
And so, through one or more of these stories, traditions of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day invaded our culture. One tradition has evolved to include specificity in number. The belief specifies that in order to have good fortune and prosperity throughout the year, one must eat 365 black-eyed peas within the 24-hour period that we call New Year’s Day.
Today, many people eat the mature form of black-eyed peas, but fresh black-eyed peas offer a rich flavor with subtle hints of nuttiness.
As a drought tolerant, heat-loving crop that performs well against pests and diseases, black-eyed peas earn the ranks of sustainability. Add to this, the fact that black-eyed pea plants add nitrogen to the soil (an important nutrient for growing vegetable plants) and generate pretty purple blooms that attract pollinators and lead to more honey, and we want to give this crop a sustainability award!
It is no wonder that black-eyed pea cultivation, which originated in West Africa, became popular in Texas.
Organic farmers at Gundermann Acres grow black-eyed peas in Texas. These family farmers are passionate about seeing food grow, and this passion pays off in the flavor and quality of their small pellets of green goodness.
Did you know that black-eyed peas are not only a phenomenon in the American South? Many cultures around the world enjoy black-eyed peas.
In the southern U.S., black-eyed peas make up the popular soul food dish known as Hoppin’ John, also made with rice and pork. Hoppin John, in particular, is considered a New Year’s staple, and each ingredient symbolizes an interesting aspect of good fortune.
In Texas specifically, many of us have experienced a picnic where someone served Texas Caviar, a cold black-eyed pea salad with a vinaigrette, garlic, onion, and some other vegetables.
In West Africa and the Caribbean, black-eyed peas make up a dish similar to falafel, where mashed black-eyed peas, salt, onions and/or peppers are mixed and fried, to make the traditional akara.
In Indonesia, islanders make hot curries with black-eyed peas such as sambal goreng, a kind of hot and spicy red curry dish, sayur brongkos, or sayur lodeh.
In coastal Portugal, Portuguese serve black-eyed peas with boiled cod and potatoes.
Ever had a delicious, Columbian buñuelo? In northern Colombia, someone may just serve you a breakfast of soaked and skinless black-eyed peas that are ground and blended with eggs and fried in hot oil to make buñuelo.
With some many cuisines to choose from, New Year’s Day shouldn’t be the only day you eat these delicious and nutritious beans!