We are on an Alan Jackson audio binge, my son and I. I have to admit, it's amusing to hear my native-NYC kindergartener sing, "Where I come from, it's cornbread and chicken…," and he even nails the down-home accent! He throws his heart into this song, even though he doesn't eat the same kind of chicken as they do in Dixie—we're not big on fried anymore. But he does eat cornbread, plus another culinary nod to the American South: black-eyed peas.
There's a thing about black-eyed peas in my family--on both sides, though the obvious connection is paternal. My father is the one from the Deep South--Alabama, to be precise--and he's the original Alan Jackson fan (we danced to the song "Drive" at my wedding). When I was small, I learned about black-eyed peas from my dad, and from his parents. From them I learned about cornbread and chicken, about collard greens and grits. I learned about the salty-fizzy-sweet of peanuts dropped in Coke, and about the sour tang of buttermilk (which I love to bake with, but simply never could bring myself to drink!). And despite my mother's Yankee status (Detroit born and bred), my immediate family has, for most years I can remember, enjoyed the New Year's Day good-luck ritual of eating "Hoppin' John," a dish of black-eyed peas and rice, in which we hide a shiny new dime—an extra bit of luck for the one who receives it. (Warning: it behooves you to eat slowly before the dime gets found!)
The tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day is common throughout the South, and it is thought to bring prosperity for the coming year. Some people will tell you that the peas represent coins—which is why you're supposed to eat a lot of them—and that they should be eaten with greens, which represent paper money. Although we ate collard greens periodically, I don't think we always ate them on New Year's, and maybe this explains my own modest income.
Black-eyed peas are, of course, a modest, inexpensive food—"poor folks" food—and for many people, this member of the cowpea family is loaded with significance. I have a friend, for example, whose parents (maybe only one parent, I don't recall which one) won't eat them because they pretty much subsisted on them during the Great Depression, and this lowly pea on the plate brings back too many bad memories. My father's family also knew poverty, but for him I believe there's nostalgia of a happy kind when he eats black-eyed peas. It's "comfort food," "soul food," and he's transported back to the red dirt and honeysuckle of his boyhood. Soul food, however, is most appropriately claimed by African-American culture—and, to be historically honest, this may as well be euphemism for "slave culture" in this country. Black-eyed peas were most likely brought to the New World from Africa aboard the slave ships. Perform even a cursory search for black-eyed peas on the Internet, and you will turn up references to the slave trade, and also to Union soldiers in the Civil War whose disdain for crops such as these inadvertently helped sustain the Confederate states. For more than three hundred years, black-eyed peas have been a staple in the Southern diet, but not every association is one of luck, prosperity, or a happy childhood.
Nor is every association of the Southern United States. It's embarrassing, but I don't know when this second-generation Greek-American finally realized: Greeks eat black-eyed peas, too! I grew up with many traditional dishes, but black-eyed peas did not seem to be in my Greek family's repertoire. Other beans, yes, and other greens. My grandmother mortified her American-born children by picking dandelions from abandoned urban lots and boiling them for supper when times were difficult. And although I was never the beneficiary of these impromptu, hard-luck meals, I did have my own taste of beans-with-greens: "fassolakia plaki me spinaki" (white beans baked with spinach).
So black-eyed peas weren't "Greek" to me in the slightest, and this view was aided by the paucity of commercial offerings. Only recently have I seen recipes with black-eyed peas showing up in Greek cookbooks or on menus in Greek restaurants here in the U.S. There is generally a very narrow allowance for "ethnic" dishes in America, despite our being the "melting pot" nation. Living in NYC, I can find authentic Greek fare, but for many, there is no room to expand the notion of Greek cuisine beyond the stereotypical gyros or souvlaki in your local diner, a Greek salad with vegetables that don't taste anything like the flavorful ones you'd get in Greece, maybe a mediocre moussaka or the ubiquitous lamb, with a cloying baklava for dessert.
But, eaten in Greece throughout the year--and particularly during Orthodox Lent and other fasting periods, when observant Greeks shun all animal meat and dairy—black-eyed peas (called "mavromatika," literally the "black-eyed," plural) appear in tomato-based soups, in hot dishes mixed with greens, and are featured in cold salads.
So, why eat black-eyed peas (and why write about them)—at New Year's, or at any other time? Obviously, taste is a matter of personal preference (and I will save the North/South debate on firm vs. "cooked to within an inch of its life" for another time). Beyond taste, they are nutritious, being good sources of protein, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, fiber, and folate. For the superstitious, the link between black-eyed peas and good luck goes a long way back: according to one site I visited, yet unverified, the tradition can be traced to Babylonian Talmud (Jewish law) from the early centuries CE. Why not? These are good reasons. For me, I can say that when I eat them, I think of "comfort" and childhood memories, like my father does. But also, I eat them every so often because of their humble origins and history, and because I married into a Gallic world of "haute gastronomie," fine dining and rich foods. Every so often, I need a good dose of humility.
Our Greco-Dixie Family Recipe for "Hoppin' John"
1 TBS butter
2 TBS olive oil
1 large onion, minced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound dried black-eyed peas, picked over
1 ham bone, or ½ pound piece of smoked ham
½ tsp fresh thyme, chopped (in a pinch use ¼ tsp dried)
1 bay leaf
1 quart chicken broth
1 quart water
½ cup brown rice
1 lemon, juiced
1 tsp lemon peel, grated
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp chopped chives
Heat butter with oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion, cook 1 minute. Add garlic; cook five minutes. Stir in black-eyed peas. Add ham bone, thyme, bay leaf, chicken broth, and water. Heat to boiling, then reduce. Simmer, partially covered, 1 hour.
Stir in rice and continue to cook partially covered until black-eyed peas and rice are tender. This may take at least another hour. Remove ham bone. Cut off any meat from the bone and chop fine. Add ham to the soup and cook a couple of minutes. Stir in lemon juice and lemon peel. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve hot, sprinkled with chives. Don't forget to hide a shiny new dime in the serving dish for good luck!