Random Appetites: New Year’s Food Traditions

Along with watching the Rose Parade (and, I suppose, the football game afterwards), I grew up knowing that New Year’s Day meant 2 things: cabbage and black-eyed peas.

Supposedly, the cabbage (or any greens for that matter) symbolizes wealth (get it: green–>money) and the peas were for health (some say luck, I prefer to go with health). As a child I recall not liking either of these foods all that much but Mom insisted we eat at least one bite of each! Things change over the years, however, and I enjoy both immensely these days.

Now, the cabbage/greens are pretty obvious, but what is up with the peas (actually beans, but common terminology calls them peas) and luck/health? The prevailing theory seems to date back to the Civil War when the crop was the only one available (since it was usually grown for animal feed) after the North marauded through the South. Hence, black-eyed peas were an important form of sustenance for those who survived the War. The irony, of course, is their name: a black eye would be considered neither lucky or healthy to have, so maybe the above is all some apocryphal nonsense trumped up by the Black-Eye-Pea Farmers of the world. Either way, done right, they can be very tasty.

Cabbage is easy to cook: Remove the outer leaves and thick stem from the head of cabbage. Cut in quarters or so and then separate the leaves in chunks, putting as much will fit into a large pot along with a ham hock, hambone, or some rendered bacon and a little bit of water. Not too much since cabbage has a high water content and will cook down to a fraction of its former self rather quickly. If you have more cabbage than will fit in the pot to begin with, put the lid on and wait a bit and then add the rest once it’s cooked down a bit. Cook until tender, add salt and pepper to taste and enjoy.

If you just can’t stand cooked cabbage, greens or green salads I see no reason why, say, coleslaw couldn’t be substituted for the same benefit.

Black-eyed peas can be a little tougher, only because it takes a while to bring out the best of their flavor. You can start from dry and soak over night, drain and then cook until tender or you can do what I do: buy good quality canned, drain and rinse thoroughly, then cook with the de rigueur ham hock, salt pork or bacon, salt (watch it if you’ve used salt pork that you don’t overdo) and pepper. The peas should be cooked until tender but not mush and, if done right, have a slightly buttery flavor even without additional seasoning. If you’re really pressed for time or haven’t had much luck getting your peas to turn out right, the Glory brand of canned black-eyed peas is a decent substitute for home-seasoned.

In some parts of the South, Hopping John–a “salad” of black-eyed peas and rice–is the customary way of getting your peas for the year. I’ve never had a batch that wasn’t really dry and mealy and don’t much care for it, myself. I’ve also heard that you should eat 365 black-eyed peas for luck/health every day of the year but, as much as I’ve come to love them, that’s a few too many peas for one day!

No matter how you prepare them, the only other thing you need to add for your traditional (if a bit superstitious) New Year’s Meal is plenty of corn bread–not only is it tasty on it’s own (try adding whole kernel corn, ham chunks and some chopped jalepenos if you don’t like the plain sort), it’s great for soaking up that pot liquor from the cabbage and peas.

Want something sweet to round out the meal? I’ve heard that the Italians (and other wine-folk) make a habit of eating 12 grapes on New Year’s Day. Some even go so far as to use it as a bit of a divination tool: if, for instance, the fifth grape is sour you can expect May to be a sour month and so forth.