How Black-eyed Peas Became Soul Food's Lucky Bean
James Beard Award-winning author Adrian Miller shares a classic black-eyed peas recipe — and the backstory on why they became a New Year's Day favorite.
The Origin of the Humble Bean
Black-eyed peas (actually a bean, rich in potassium, iron, and fiber and protein but cholesterol-free and low in fat and sodium) are native to Africa, where they have been a popular food since the Middle Ages. (Black-eyed peas are believed to have been first domesticated near Africa's Lake Chad in what is now northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon.) European slavers fed their enslaved black-eyed peas during "The Middle Passage," the horrific boat journey across the Atlantic Ocean. In the Americas, planters fed the peas to the enslaved as well as to domesticated animals. The impoverished ate them as well. For these reasons, black-eyed peas had a reputation as a poor person's food among well-to-do whites. Yet, African Americans continued to favor the lonely pea, and it became a soul food staple.
The Good Luck Charm of Legumes
Though black-eyed peas (also known as cowpeas) have no folkloric connection in West Africa to money (some people believe the peas symbolize coins), they have long been associated with good luck for several reasons. One belief was that the "black eyes" of the pea would protect one from the dreaded "evil eye"— a negative spell cast by one's enemies. Others ate black-eyed peas on auspicious occasions. For example, on Good Friday, a cowpea-and-coconut-custard combination called frejon is a traditional meal in parts of West Africa. Additionally, a dish called ewa-Ibeji (which translates as "Beans for Twins") was originally cooked with oil and only for ailing twin children, but now it is ceremonially prepared for healthy twins. In some traditional West African religions, black-eyed peas were prepared to worship a diety — if it was believed to be their favorite food — on ceremonial days.
On this side of the Atlantic, black-eyed peas retained their lucky status. People of West African heritage carried them around as a lucky charm, to ward off harmful magic spells and the evil eye. People of West European heritage thought beans in general symbolized fertility because dried beans, including black-eyed peas, increase in size when cooked. With all of these folkloric influences, the black-eyed pea was destined to be a good luck symbol.
What's the Deal With Eating Black-Eyed Peas on New Year's Day?
The tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day actually began with Western Europeans. By the colonial period, the British celebrated New Year's Day with the superstition of "the first-footer." Ralph Whitlock wrote in his book In Search of Lost Gods: A Guide to British Folklore that "the first person to set foot over the threshold on New Year's morning must in most districts be dark-haired or dark-complexioned; he or she is then a bringer of good luck. Sometimes the first-footer brings a present of coal and bread, symbolizing a wish that the house shall never be short of fuel or food in the coming year." Reinforcing this was the belief that whatever happened on that first day — whether good or bad — would happen for the rest of the year. Over time, the black eyes of the peas on one's dinner table replaced the requirement of having a dark-eyed stranger knocking at one's door on January 1. In essence, African Americans reinterpreted a European belief and then presented it to white southerners as something they invented; The good vibes that people of West African heritage had about black-eyed peas melded with European superstitions to produce a quintessential Southern tradition.
However you feel about this particular legume, I hope that you'll join in the fun and make a pot of black-eyed peas on New Year's Day. It's a coin-toss as to whether or not prosperity will come your way — but with this recipe, at least you'll salivate at the prospect.
How to Make Black-Eyed Peas
This is one of the first recipes that I got from my late mother, Johnetta Miller. Though this is a recipe for black-eyed peas, this is my standard approach for making any vegetable in "soul food style."
Makes 8 servings
- 1 pound dried black-eyed or other field peas
- 1 smoked ham hock or smoked turkey wing (about 8 ounces)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
- Salt, to taste
- Rinse the peas and pick through them to discard any small stones or broken peas. Pour the peas into a large saucepan and cover with cold water by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. (Alternatively, place the peas in a large bowl, cover with cold water, and let stand at room temperature overnight.)
- Meanwhile, make a stock by placing the ham hock or turkey wing in another large saucepan. Cover with water by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the stock is flavorful, about 1 hour. Discard the hock or wing.
- Drain the soaking liquid from the peas and add them to the stock. Make sure the peas are submerged. Stir in the onion and pepper flakes.
- Simmer until the peas are nearly tender, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and continue simmering until the peas are tender and well-seasoned, about 10 minutes more. Serve the peas warm.
If desired, you may pull the meat off the ham hocks or turkey parts and add it to the dish before serving.
This article is adapted from Adrian Miller's James Beard Award-winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.
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