Another Year, Another Black-Eyed Pea.

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For longer than I care to admit, I’ve started each year enjoying a typical Southern style New Year’s Day meal—baked ham, collard greens, cornbread, boiled new potatoes, and of course, black-eyed peas. In fact, to the best of my recollection, it’s about the only day of the year that I eat these black spotted legumes. Not that I don’t like black-eyed peas, it’s just I never think about having them until another new year rolls around.

While the black-eyed pea (they’re actually a bean, not a pea) was likely first domesticated in West Africa, it also has history in many Asian countries where it has been widely grown for thousands of years. Black-eyed peas were introduced to America by colonists of Virginia during the 17th century, although its cultivation as a food crop in that region did not become popular until after the American Revolution.

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Today this heat-loving, drought and disease tolerant crop is grown throughout the American South, including Texas, and is used in traditional soul food dishes such as “Hoppin’ John” and “Texas Caviar.” Of course, probably the most popular method of preparing black-eyed peas is boiling them in a big pot seasoned with pork jowls or fatback. Just how these legumes became one of the New Year’s Day good-luck foods can be associated with any of several legends.

I’m sure you have all heard the claim that the black-eyed pea is representative of coins, which may have come from an old Southern saying “peas for pennies, greens for dollars, and cornbread for gold,” because they certainly do not look any coins I’ve ever seen. The superstition is that in order for them to actually bring you luck, you must eat exactly 365 peas on New Year’s Day—no more, no less.

Then there’s the thought that since these peas swell when cooked, they represent increased prosperity in the new year.

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Another reason black-eyed peas may have become a good luck symbol in the American South dates back to the Civil War. History tells us that Union troops typically plundered or destroyed all of the South’s food supplies when taking an area. But since Northerners at the time considered black-eyed peas fit only for livestock fodder, they spared this humble food. It therefore became a much needed Southern sustenance and symbol of good luck.

A popular variation to this story is that on January 1, 1863—the day the Emancipation Proclamation became effective—black-eyed peas were one of the only foods southern slaves had available with which to celebrate. So from that day forward, peas were always eaten on New Year’s Day.

The good-luck traditions of eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s are not limited to the Southerners in this country. According to the Babylonian Talmud (339 CE) they are an established good luck symbol associated with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. And although they being a part of this list may be the result of an early mistranslation of the Aramaic word rubiya, consuming them along with long melons, leeks, beets, spinach, and dates is a custom still followed by Sephardi and Israeli Jews. There are even those who claim it was Sephardic Jewish colonists that settled in Georgia in 1733 who introduced this custom to the American South.

So the question remains. Does making black-eyed peas part of your New Year’s Day celebration really ensure prosperity for the coming year? In answer to that question I would like to divulge one of my life experiences.

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Some thirty years ago after meeting my lovely bride, I decided to introduce her and her family of Italian restaurateurs to a traditional Southern New Year’s Day meal. And if that alone were not enough, we ate the meal in the main dining room of their Brooklyn Italian restaurant during the middle of the afternoon while the place was open. Can you picture customers coming in to enjoy a plate of Veal Marsala or Chicken Cacciatore and finding the family, waiters and cooks eating black-eyed peas, collard greens (which a friend had to pick up in Harlem), ham, and cornbread? Along with a good laugh, some of my father-in-laws loyal customers even asked if they could try some of the humble but delicious Southern fare we were eating.

That year my wife’s family enjoyed one of the most profitable years in the restaurant’s sixty-year history. So much so that they were able to purchase a building in the neighborhood in which to expand their business. As for me personally? I became a part of the nicest family I’ve ever known. We now have two wonderful sons, three grandchildren, and I’ve continued to enjoy career growth and prosperity every year since.

Maybe our good fortune is the result of that New Year’s Day meal—perhaps not. But I certainly intend to continue enjoying black-eyed peas as part of my annual New Year’s tradition and anticipating all the blessings eating them brings.

Make Em: Texas Caviar, Hoppin John, Black-Eyed Pea Cakes.

Thanksgiving: A Day of Feasting, Reflection and Thanks

Although raised in modest, humble surroundings, my childhood was filled with happiness and more than my share of blessings. While we didn’t always have the luxuries of life, my father worked two and sometimes three jobs to make sure we had all the necessities. And my stay-at-home mom seemed to have an uncanny knack for stretching the dollar further than just about anyone I’ve ever known.

In spite of the fact that many evening suppers were simple, consisting mainly of vegetable dishes, there was one day each year that our dining table gave the appearance that we were fairly well off, if not rich–at least in my mind. That day was Thanksgiving.

Both of my parents were raised as hard working Oklahoma dirt farmers. And if there’s one thing that farmers know besides their fields it’s how to put together a family “feed,” especially on Thanksgiving. Obviously my father and mother were no different.

spratt_rockwell_fullThanksgiving at our house always started about a week before that Congressionally designated fourth Thursday of November–shopping for ingredients, making cornbread for momma’s famous cornbread stuffing, boiling up the fresh cranberry sauce (we never served the canned stuff at our house), and the baking of mincemeat pies (my momma’s favorite), pumpkin pies (actually sweet potato most of the time), and her famous coconut-pineapple layer cake.

Early Thanksgiving morning, it was all hands on deck in order to complete the meal and other tasks before relatives and friends arrived. Of course we always had green beans (in the mid-1950s it became green bean casserole), sweet corn or squash casserole, mashed Irish potatoes, creamy yams with marshmallow topping, and my momma’s ambrosia. About the only non-traditional thing we served was roasted chicken instead of turkey because my father didn’t like turkey. Some years we even had a small ham as well.

first thanksgiving2Have you ever wondered how the Thanksgiving traditions and foods of today compare to those of that first Thanksgiving feast? Let’s take a quick look.

Historians tell us that the original Thanksgiving festivities lasted at least three days. Not only did the colonists and their ninety or so Wampanaog guests hunt and feast, they also showed off the proficiency of their weapons with a little target practice.

thanksgiving_dinner_1280x1024The meat served at the first Thanksgiving was primarily venison and various birds. And while wild turkey was possibly among the fowl served, it was almost certainly not the centerpiece of the table as it is today. Research shows that during the early colonial period the fowl of choice for both the Pilgrims and Native Americans was goose, duck, and passenger pigeon. It is said that hunting passenger pigeonspassenger pigeons, although now extinct, were so plentiful in the 1620s that a man could bring down well over a hundred birds in flight with a single shot from his musket. Small birds were usually spit-roasted, while larger fowl were boiled before roasting.

Other meats enjoyed during these festivities likely included eels, clams, mussels, lobsters, and fish, since it is known that smoking and drying various sea foods was common during the time.

Stuffing is another food that differed greatly from that of today, since bread was made from maize instead of wheat. Pilgrims and Native Americans alike probably stuffed their birds with onions, nuts, and various herbs. One researcher mentions a 17th-century stuffing recipe for goose that was primarily just shelled chestnuts.

Potatoes, neither white or sweet, were not eaten at the first Thanksgiving since they were discovered in South America by Spanish explorers and had not yet been introduced to North America. The local Native American inhabitants did enjoy turnips and other root vegetables, which most were most likely served alongside other vegetables like squash, beans, cabbage, carrots, and peas. Corn was plentiful and would also have been served, although the kernels would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal from which porridge or flat bread would have been made.

Various fruits, including plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries, and cranberries were also eaten by both the Native Americans and Pilgrims and would probably been included in the Thanksgiving bounty. However, it would be another fifty years before granny-with-piesthey would be boiled with a sweetener to make sauces and relishes to enjoy with meats.

Pies of any sort is another dish that was not served at the first Thanksgiving since they had not yet been developed in the New World. Pumpkins and other squashes indigenous to the area were probably roasted over hot coals and enjoyed as another accompaniment to the meal.

Hopefully there is one we have in common with participants of the first Thanksgiving–a celebration of thanks for all God has provided.

So whether you enjoy a huge family Thanksgiving meal or just sit around watching the football games with friends, take just a moment to give thanks for all of this year’s blessings.

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Try Em: Julia’s Deconstructed Turkey, Corn Casserole, Green Bean Casserole, Classic Pumpkin Pie