I grew up in Virginia by way of Kentucky, which is to say I didn’t grow up in the real South. So I was puzzled oh-so-many years ago when my high-school pal Diana told me about eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.
Diana’s family had moved to Richmond from some nothing town in Alabama, where eating legumes was a New Year’s tradition. When my sixteen-year-old self asked why, she simply said it was for luck. Baffled by her shallow explanation, I chalked it up to one of those quirky things Southerners do.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I was recently reminded of Diana as I started seeing one Hopping John recipe after another. It got me thinking about her lucky peas and how they came about. So, naturally, I Googled them.
It seems the tradition can be (ironically) traced back to Vicksburg, Virginia. And like everything else in the Old Dominion, it has to do with the Civil War. While under attack by northern aggressors, the starving citizenry of Vicksburg discovered a store of black-eyed peas, bringing them luck at a critical time.
Digging a little deeper, I also discovered that black-eyed peas have come to be known as a symbol of prosperity in the South. In fact, many have long eaten them because of their supposed resemblance to coins.
It’s said some families even toss in a shiny dime to bring luck to the finder, much like the baby in a King Cake. Others go one step further and serve up their peas with paper money stand-ins like collard and mustard greens.
Personally, I find it amusing that this time-honored rite is rooted in tales of health and wealth. In terms of our two most popular resolutions, one is almost always abandoned while the other is rarely achieved. Maybe folks just aren’t eating enough black-eyed peas?