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Amanda Galiano

Why Do We Eat Peas on New Year's: Explaining Southern Traditions

By December 30, 2010

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For the next few days I'll be delving into some fun New Year's superstitions of the south.  The first is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of New Year's Day: black-eyed peas.  Do you know why black-eyed peas are lucky on New Year's Day?  As with most superstitions, there are several answers to the question.  Typically, the belief that black-eyed peas are a lucky New Year's meal is especially popular in the south, so it has to do with our history, right? Maybe.

Most Southerners will tell you that it dates back to the Civil War.  Black-eyed peas were considered animal food (like purple hull peas).   The peas were not worthy of General Sherman's Union troops.  When Union soldiers raided the Confederates food supplies, legend says they took everything except the peas and salted pork.  The Confederates considered themselves lucky to be left with those meager supplies, and survived the winter.  Peas became symbolic of luck.

Black-eyed peas were also given to slaves, as were most other traditional New Year's foods.  Let's face it: a lot of the stuff we eat on New Year's is soul food.   One explanation of the superstition says that black-eyed peas were all the southern slaves had to celebrate with on the first day of January, 1863. What were they celebrating?  That was the day when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.   From then on, peas were always eaten on the first day of January.

Others say that since the south has generally always been the place for farming, black-eyed peas are just a good thing to celebrate with in the winter.  Not many crops grow this time of the year, but black-eyed peas hold up well, were cheap and just make sense.

The oddest explanation for this tradition I found is on Wikipedia.  According to Wikipedia, the tradition dates as far ancient Egypt.  During the time of the Pharaohs, it was believed that eating a meager food like black-eyed peas showed humility before the gods, and you would be blessed.  According to Wikipedia, the Babylonian Talmud, which dates to 339 CE, instructs the faithful Jews to eat black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana.  The belief was similar: those who ate black-eyes showed their humility and saved themselves from the wrath of God.  It seems odd that such a belief would spread to the southern states.  We don't have a large Jewish population.  Perhaps peas and lentils are just a good thing to eat at this time of year.

How do you eat the peas? My family always argues over this. Some people believe you should cook them with a new dime or penny, or add it to the pot before serving.  The person who receives the coin in their portion will be extra lucky.  Some say you should eat exactly 365 peas on New Year's day.  If you eat any less, you'll only be lucky for that many days.   I guess on leap years, you need to eat an extra one.  If you eat any more than 365 peas, it turns those extra days into bad luck.  Some say you should leave one pea on your plate, to share your luck with someone else (more of the humbleness that peas seems to represent).  Some say if you don't eat every pea on your plate, your luck will be bad.

It's also said that if you eat only black peas, and skip the pork, collard greens and the accompaniments, the luck won't stick.  They all work together or not at all.

Who knew New Year's Day was so complicated?  I'll talk about ways to obtain wealth tomorrow.  I would say buying a Mega-millions ticket wouldn't be a bad idea.  Too bad you won't get your lucky peas in before the drawing.  I guess it can't hurt to eat them before New Year's Day.

About Collard Greens and Cornbread

, About Hog Jowls


December 30, 2010 at 6:53 am
(1) Alan G says:

Interesting information…

All I had ever heard with regard to the requirement of eating black-eyed peas on New Years was that they were lucky, end of story, so this is all news to me.

I have, however, always had a question that perhaps you can shed some light upon?

Even though I hold with the tradition for the most part, I have been criticized for the way I cook my peas. Being a man with minimal cooking skills, I just open a can of Showboat black-eyed peas, add four strips of uncooked bacon, salt, cover and let simmer for about an hour. They’re actually quite tasty but there are those who have warned me that if the traditional New Year’s day black-eyed peas are not cooked from scratch – my ultimate destination in the after-life is quite questionable.

December 30, 2010 at 2:52 pm
(2) Amanda says:

LOL! I can’t say for sure about your destination in the after-life, but canned black-eyed peas are actually very nutritious (in some way more than dried ones, but they generally have additional salt). I wouldn’t worry about it!

Frozen peas are good for you too!

December 30, 2010 at 9:39 pm
(3) Dan says:

Well I;m settin’ here talkin’ to my 84 year young mama about this. She says Peas are for change (as in pocket change) and luck. The collards are for green backs as in money.

December 30, 2010 at 10:49 pm
(4) Amanda says:

Maybe. Superstitions are so different everywhere. traditionally, collard greens and cornbread are for money, hog jowls for health and peas for luck.

Having pocket change is pretty lucky though!

December 30, 2010 at 11:12 pm

Love your explanations about why we eat blackeyed peas etc on New Years I eat the black=eyed peas alot i love them as I do all peas. Alot of times we have bould cabbage sweet potatoes cornbread etc your explanations are really neat thanks Happy New YEAR to you and yours

December 31, 2010 at 9:32 am
(6) RIP says:

If Egyptians ate black eyed peas, this would make sence that blacks would eat them in the south. Egypt is in Africa, and the slave trade affected all of Africa. Of course the Jews were the slaves at the time of which you speak.

January 1, 2011 at 1:23 pm
(7) Mack Robertson says:

We’re Scottish, and my family in both Scotland and TX, Alabama, and Tenn. insist on eating black eyed peas. Last yr. was my first time to not eat them. I was in the hospital, and they didn’t serve them. I had a bad yr. until just a few months ago. I’ve had several big helpings of them today. This will be a big test.

January 1, 2011 at 5:55 pm
(8) Darrell says:

Amanda, in your original post you said…”It seems odd that such a belief would spread to the southern states. We don’t have a large Jewish population.” You’re correct that we don’t currently have a large Jewish population, however we did have prior to the War between the States. In 1860 the Jewish population of Charleston, SC was greatest of any American City. And Jews had a long history in the South prior to the War. The Confederate States President Jefferson Davis appointed a Jew, Judah P. Benjamin to a high level cabinet post.

January 2, 2011 at 12:43 pm
(9) Michele says:

I grew up in the north (Dakotas) and had never heard of this custom until I came to Texas. I have been here 10 years and moving to Texas was probably one of the best things my husband and I have ever done. It was good for us in all ways. We are not financially well off, but are in much better shape financially/socially here than we ever were in the north. Plus we do not freeze most of the winter, have to deal with ice and snow, or in general get involved in all the little family squabbles that are part of a large family. However, we have never followed the black eyed peas or cabbage or cornbread traditions. We did this year and it will be interesting to see if it makes any difference.

January 2, 2012 at 9:57 am
(10) Becky says:

Great stories… the only provision that I have ever heard regarding black-eyes peas on New Years was that in order for the luck to really find you, you are supposed to eat them as your first meal of the new year.

January 2, 2012 at 2:36 pm
(11) Wayne Carlson says:

It seems to me from the tone of your article that you discount the reason for the Southern tradition of eating black eyed peas on New Years day in Dixie. Assuming you are from Arkansas, since that is where you went to school and are employed, it is a shame that you would not highlight the point in time when and how the tradition became more or less universal in the South. Here’s the story as I understand it.
The story of THE BLACK EYED PEA being considered good luck relates directly back to Sherman’s Bloody March to the Sea in late 1864. It was called The Savannah Campaign and was lead by Major General William T. Sherman. The Civil War campaign began on 11/15/64 when Sherman ‘s troops marched from the captured city of Atlanta, Georgia, and ended at the port of Savannah on 12/22/1864.

When the smoke cleared, the southerners who had survived the onslaught and came out of hiding. They found that the blue belly aggressors that had looted, butchered, and/or burned everything of value. Death and destruction were everywhere. While in hiding, few had enough to eat, and starvation was now upon the survivors.
The Northern invaders had taken everything they could carry and eaten everything they could eat. But they couldn’t take it all. The devastated people of the south discovered that for some unknown reason Sherman ’s bloodthirsty troops had left silos full of black eyed peas.

Southerners awoke to face a new year in this devastation and were facing massive starvation if not for the good luck of having the black eyed peas to eat. From New Years Day 1866 forward a tradition began of eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck.”.

January 1, 2013 at 10:21 am
(12) awaken says:

check your history and not the one he gives us EGYPTIAN where black. so the whole concept make sence to me people of all color always gave thanks to their creator for what he’s giving us know matter how small it maybe and in return he bless us which we now call lucky

January 1, 2013 at 1:11 pm
(13) littlerock says:

Yes, many Egyptians were dark skinned (though most of the slaves imported to the South did not come from Egypt: http://africanhistory.about.com/library/bl/bl-slavery-stats4.htm#table). However, it was the Jews of Egypt that had the tradition. Typically, African Americans are not descended from Egyptian Jews. You don’t see Southern blacks practicing many other Jewish traditions. Many Jewish traditions are, however, based on the history of their enslavement and mistreatment, just like many Southern black traditions.

January 1, 2013 at 9:02 pm
(14) shae says:

haa haa very interesting and funny

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