Why Do We Eat Black-Eyed Peas On New Year's?
Southern superstition holds that people who eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day will be blessed with a year’s worth of good luck. But why, exactly, are black-eyed peas lucky — and what’s the story behind the tasty tradition? Here’s what you need to know:
Black-Eyed Peas History
Black-eyed peas’ history can be traced back to medieval Africa, but trade routes made them common throughout Europe and India. The medium-sized bean (yes, black-eyed peas are technically beans) made its way to North America via slave ships by the 1700s, according to Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time by Adrian Miller. The crop became so popular in the Southern U.S., particularly among Native Americans, that many people believed it was native to the Americas.
The widespread love for black-eyed peas hasn’t always been universal, though. There’s an old European bias against beans, Miller notes, and “the main gripe was spiritual.” Beans were linked with rowdiness that surrounded the year’s beginning and end, and Ancient Romans believed that beans contained the souls of the dead. Superstitious associations aside, beans were generally considered a poor person’s food — unfortunately, in the antebellum South, that meant it was considered “slave food” and animal feed.
It’s not clear when exactly black-eyed peas became associated with good fortune in the U.S., but the following report was published in The Broad Ax, a Black newspaper in Utah, in 1904: “Mrs. Marshall Drish, 4613 Dearborn Street, received a small bag of black eyed peas from one of her lady friends who came from behind the sun down in Tennessee; with the request the she should cook and eat them all on New Year’s Day; If she did so she would have plenty of money all the year round. We are not in a position to state whether Mrs. Drish followed her friend’s advice or not.”
It’s important to note that, though black-eyed peas are most often associated with New Year’s traditions in the American South, they’re also traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year).
Black-Eyed Peas Symbolism
“Black-eyed peas are associated with a mystical and mythical power to bring good luck, and many a Southern New Year’s Day menu features the dish in one form or another,” Southern food researcher John Egerton says in his book Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History.
There are a couple popular legends about how and why black-eyed peas came to symbolize good fortune in the U.S.:
- According to folklore, the Union Army raided the Confederate Army’s food supplies during the Civil War. They took everything edible the soldiers had except for the peas and pork, believing they were meant for animals and not for humans. The Confederates were “lucky” to have the remaining food to get them through the cold winter.
- Another legend holds that slaves ate black-eyed peas on January 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, because they were all they had. This, according to the story, is why black-eyed peas have been eaten on every New Year’s Day since.
Though black-eyed peas are associated with general good luck, most widely circulated traditions — for one reason or another — link that fortune with monetary gain. Here are a few possible explanations:
- “Eat poor on New Year's, and eat fat the rest of the year” is a popular Southern expression, according to The Farmers’ Almanac. If you believe that theory, it makes perfect sense to dine on peas on January 1.
- Black-eyed peas swell when they’re cooked, which symbolizes an expansion of wealth.
- Dried beans (kind of, if you squint) look like coins.
How to Eat Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s
So, we’ve established that eating black-eyed peas on January 1 will bring you a year’s worth of prosperity. But the luck won’t stick, according to many legends, if you don’t eat them with greens (which symbolize money), cornbread (which symbolizes gold), and pork (which symbolizes luck, as pigs root forward).
Of course, the most famous way to incorporate all these ingredients in one dish is Hoppin’ John with a side of cornbread (you can’t go wrong with Grandmother’s Buttermilk Cornbread recipe). But, as long as you consume all these lucky foods on New Year’s, it really doesn’t matter how you eat them. Don’t tempt fate this year — find our best lucky New Year’s recipes right here.