There are places in the United States that are rich in folklore and tradition, and the Southern States are where some of the oldest and best preserved (or the newest and strongest) can be found. One of the best known is that in the new year you should make a meal of black-eyed peas, greens, and corn bread … though if pressed, few folks would be able to tell you why.
The tradition itself is old. Native to Northern and Western Africa, black-eyed peas (which are actually a type of bean) came over with enslaved people to North America. They were looked down on as a food source, fit only for slaves, livestock, and the poorest of the poor. While in Africa they were enjoyed with rice or fried plantains, in North America they were eaten in soups and stews alongside whatever else could be grown in the garden or salvaged from butchered animals.
Also known as “cowpeas”, black-eyed peas are a creamy white in color and have black marks in the center for “eyes”. They are rich in fiber and are a source of complex carbohydrates. Just a half cup of the beans can provide a pregnant mother with 44% of her daily intake of folate (which can protect brain and spinal health). That same half cup of black-eyed peas can also provide 40% of the daily recommended dose of manganese for men and 52% for women (which helps protect the cell structure responsible for making energy). These beans are also rich in protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, copper, and zinc. Their health benefits alone provide people with great wealth, but is this where the attachment to prosperity comes from?
Black-eyed peas are easy to grow, so they could be planted in just about any garden and ensure your family’s survival. They also keep well, meaning that even during a tough winter, you could have plenty of beans put back in your larder that only needed boiling water and some remains of pork or hot sauce to make palatable. The most popular recipe for consuming them, “Hoppin’ John”, is as simple as combining the beans with rice, pork, and seasoning, and has been found as far back as an 1847 recipe book called “A Carolina Housewife” by Sarah Rudledge.
There has always been an air of magic attached to the humble bean, as well. In Southern Food John Egerton writes that it is believed the beans have a “mystical and mythical power to bring good luck.” It has been said in the South “eat poor on New Year’s and eat fat the rest of the year”, suggesting a meal of this cheap, filling food can turn luck in your favor for the coming days. Enjoyed alongside its companion foods (cornbread for gold, greens for cash), it was a meal that promised prosperity, even as you ate in the manner of the poor. A mouthful of beans would be enough, but to guarantee good fortune for every day of the year, it was best to eat at least 365 of them.
Undoubtedly, part of the magic lies in the shared meal with your ancestors, who would have enjoyed similar fare (and not just at one time of the year). Modern Pagans can harness this liminal time of the year (which arguably extends the whole of the month, not just a single day) to lay out offerings for their ancestors of black-eyed peas (acknowledging the struggles of your family), honey (a wish for sweeter times), salt (to preserve you through hard times), eggs (to be renewed), and bread (to bind you together with your ancestors in love). Lay the offerings first on the table to honor your ties, and then place them at a liminal space (such as the edge of a field or forest, or alongside a fence) to cement your ties with the land spirits, as well.
No matter whether you celebrate the new year with beans or champagne, pork or duck fat, may the old season release you gently and the new season welcome you warmly.
[Written by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]