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.

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Sorghum Syrup: Sweet Elixir of the South

In the early seventeenth century, sweet sorghum was introduced into America as an alternative to sugar cane in the upper South and Midwest. First brought here by African slaves, sorghum cane thrived in hot, arid conditions and was soon grown by farmers in the Carolinas and as far west as Texas and far north as Iowa.

Researchers believe the domestication of sorghum started in the Sudan-Chad area of Africa where it was cultivated as an important foodstuff for making breads, porridge, beverages, and sweetener. From there it spread first to India sometime around 2000 B.C. and later by trade routes to Arabia, Italy, China, and Korea. The first official record of sorghum seeds arriving in this country was in 1853, and within five years the U.S. patent office had distributed thousands of seed packets to America’s farmers.

It is estimated that in 1860, America produced almost seven million gallons of sweet sorghum syrup, with Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana accounting for about half. By 1863, Iowa alone produced three million gallons, selling for fifty to sixty cents per gallon. In some parts of the country, sorghum syrup commanded a higher price than “corn likker,” which sold for just thirty-five cents a gallon. And it was legal!

Making sorghum syrup is a labor intensive process that takes place from mid-September until the end of October. It typically involves cutting off the seedheads of the cultivar Sorghum bicolor (sweet sorghum) plant, stripping the leaves, then chopping down, and crushing the stalks in a horse powered press to obtain the juice. It was then strained through burlap into the cooking pan where it was boiled down to evaporate the water and concentrate its sweetness, much the same way as producing maple syrup. It takes about ten gallons of raw juice to make one gallon of syrup.

Following the Civil War, most production of sorghum syrup shifted from the Northern states to the South where by 1890 production had reached more than twenty-four million gallons. However, because of its short season, the amount of labor it took to produce, and the economical production of white sugar from corn and sugar beets, demand for sorghum syrup began to decline.

Today, most sorghum grown for syrup production comes from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee, where collectively only about thirty-thousand acres are planted annually and syrup production has dwindled down to around one-million gallons.

It should also be mentioned that sorghum syrup is extremely nutritious. While it contains more calories than white cane or beet sugar, it is packed with vitamins and minerals. In fact, one tablespoon of sorghum syrup contains 300 milligrams of protein, 200 milligrams of potassium, 30 milligrams of calcium, 20 milligrams of magnesium and .76 milligrams of iron. It is also high in antioxidants and supplies all of an adults daily dose of potassium.

The versatility of sorghum is being rediscovered by America’s chefs and housewives. There is hardly any dish in which sweet sorghum’s rich dark-brown “molasses” (actually molasses is a by-product of sugar cane) cannot be used to add a delicious taste and aroma. The fact is that sweet sorghum syrup can be substituted cup for cup in any recipe that calls for molasses, honey or maple syrup. It is perfect for seasoning beans, making cookies, pouring over corn bread, a stack of pancakes, or a bowl of ice cream. And let’s certainly not forget the old Southern tradition of mixing a little sweet sorghum with butter and spreading it over the morning’s hot biscuits.

Try Em: Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill, Monterey, Tennessee; Sandhill Farm, Inc., Rutledge, Missouri; Hillside Orchard Farms, Inc., Tiger, Georgia; Fain’s Honey Co., Llano, Texas

Make Em: Sorghum Cookies, Pineapple Sorghum Cake, Sorghum Molasses Pie, Shoofly Pie, Kale Salad with Sorghum Vinaigrette