My mother, who grew up in East Texas (which she would argue is technically the South), introduced me to the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas to ring in the new year. This tradition allegedly came from West Africa, where black-eyed peas are said to have originated. The distinctive black dot where the pale pea curves is reminiscent of cowry shells, which were once used as currency in West Africa. As such, black-eyed peas have come to symbolize wealth, which is how it became a New Year’s Day staple for many Southerners.
I remember going on a New Year’s Eve Caribbean cruise once and meeting a couple of passengers from Tennessee. They were discussing what they would do if the chef had the audacity to let Jan. 1 arrive without serving black-eyed peas. In the end, they were able to find a can of “congo peas” while we were docked in St. Kitts. I still have that image of them huddled together in their stateroom eating spoonfuls of cold beans right from the can.
My acceptance of the black-eyed pea tradition was never that extreme. In fact, I watch the ball drop in Times Square every year without ever thinking of a single black-eyed pea. I never found them to be particularly tasty, at least the way many Southerners I knew prepared them. Both my mother and my stepmother, who hailed form Alabama, barely seasoned their peas with anything more than a slice of bacon and some onion.
I like to indulge in something a little more luxurious to ring in the New Year. I feel it encourages fate to bring me enough prosperity to enjoy some decadent moments in the year ahead. A Spartan pot of beans just never seemed to offer that, despite its association with money. I needed something else.
In early October, one of my coworkers, who grew up in the state of Ceará in northeastern Brazil, told me about a particular bean dish from back home that people supposedly go crazy for. He called it feijão verde, which translates to "green bean"—although he insisted they're nothing like American green beans. Instead, they're served in traditional clay pots and covered in thick layers of molten cheese. According to him, people would line up around the block for a taste of these beans from one of his hometown’s humble eateries.
Turns out, feijão verde is made with fresh, green black-eyed peas — hence, the verde. My coworker sent me a recipe video in Portuguese, from which I was able to get the gist of how this popular dish is prepared: You mix precooked black-eyed peas with reconstituted dried beef, scallions, and chopped cilantro. To this mix you add two types of processed dairy products that are ubiquitous in Brazil: creme de leite and creme de natas. The former is basically canned heavy cream, while the latter can be described as canned clotted cream. The mixture is then topped with a generous layer of mild local cheese and simmered until melted and bubbly.
After browsing through several recipes and trying to find acceptable substitutes for some of the more difficult-to-find Brazilian ingredients, I came up with a formula that's easy enough for almost anyone to make, while still retaining the characteristics that make this dish such a hit in its native Ceará. I substituted the canned dairy products with heavy cream and cream cheese, which make a thick, velvety sauce. I replaced dried beef—called carne de sol in Brazil — for bacon, which gives the dish little bits of smoky, salty meatiness. In place of Brazilian cheese, I used Monterey Jack, which pairs well with the other flavors and melts beautifully.
If ever I were to need a casserole dish of something cheesy, creamy, and comforting, this would be the year for it.
* * *
2018 has been a particularly tumultuous year for my family and me. My mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, which sparked my partner John and me to set our wedding date sooner so that she could see us get married. I was able to take a trip of a lifetime to Pakistan with one of my best friends, only to return home to the news that I had diabetes and a very compromised liver. During this time, John lost his job.
In the end, my mother-in-law beat cancer just as I overcame my ailments. John and I celebrated our nine years together with an intimate wedding ceremony. And almost as soon as he became my husband, he found a fabulous new job. Things appeared to be improving for my family, until I received a phone call on Halloween night from a detective. My sister had passed away unexpectedly. She was one of the few people in my life who truly understood me, and losing her had a damaging effect on every other aspect of my life, just as it had seemed to come together again.
If I need anything on Dec. 31, it’s the knowledge that I can put this year behind me and look forward to a peaceful, stable 2019. Should "prosperity" come with it, then even better. Which is why this year I'll be watching the ball drop in Times Square with a glass of champagne and a spoonful or ten of this creamy, cheesy, black-eyed pea dish.
While feijão verde isn’t a New Year's tradition in Ceará, it's become one of mine here in Miami. Despite the many rough times I've had this year, I've realized that it's these little moments of pleasure — like learning about a new dish and figuring out how to make it — that can help me see that life still has its rewards.
Cheesy, Creamy Black-Eyed Peas
Serves: 6 to 8
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
6 slices bacon, cut into roughly 1-inch pieces
1 large white or yellow onion, diced
1 Cubanelle pepper, seeded and chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 (16-ounce) cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1 pint heavy cream
4 ounces cream cheese, cut into 6 pieces
4 scallions, chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 cups Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
Salt and pepper, to taste
Click here to read the full recipe.