Here’s how black-eyed peas became synonymous with New Year’s cooking

The earthy and creamy beans are showstoppers in Southern stews, Texas caviar, crostini and plenty more

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published December 28, 2022 11:00AM (EST)

Black-Eyed Peas In Bowl On Cutting Board (Getty Images/Silvia Elena Castañeda Puchetta/EyeEm)
Black-Eyed Peas In Bowl On Cutting Board (Getty Images/Silvia Elena Castañeda Puchetta/EyeEm)

Whether it's pork, grapes, pomegranate or fish, some of our simplest foods are inadvertently considered to be the luckiest. To add to the list is black-eyed peas, the famed legume (not the American musical group) used in stews, salads and dips. Thanks to Southern superstition and a rich history dating back to the 1700s, the earthy yet creamy white beans are also a popular staple for New Year's dinner.

Black-eyed peas first originated in Africa, although trade routes later introduced them to both Europe and India. Before they were regarded as lucky, the beans earned a poor reputation, commonly associated with "rowdiness that surrounded the year's beginning and end," as noted by Corey Williams in a piece on Allrecipes, and deemed by the Ancient Romans to contain the souls of the dead. By the 1700s, black-eyes peas came to North America via slave ships and were used as food for both livestock and slaves in the South.

It's still not clear how and when the beans were associated with good fortune in the United States. But several old wives' tales provide some explanation. One legend claims that black-eyed peas were the Confederate Army's saving grace amid the Civil War. The army's food supplies were allegedly ransacked by the Union Army, who took everything except the measly beans and some pork. Despite the shortcomings, the Confederate soldiers survived on the black-eyed peas amid the frigid winter, making the beans a lucky food in the American South.

Another legend states that black-eyed peas were eaten by slaves on January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The auspicious day soon set a trend for black-eyed peas being enjoyed every New Year's Day afterwards. 

Today, black-eyed peas are enjoyed alongside other hearty ingredients in a slew of dishes. The beans are served with greens (specifically collards, mustard or turnip greens) and cornbread — with the beans representing "coins," the greens representing "paper money," and the cornbread representing "gold." The peas are even eaten with stewed tomatoes for good health and wealth.

But the most traditional black-eyed peas dish is Hoppin' John, a Southern must-have that features black-eyed peas cooked with rice, pork (be it ham, hambones or bacon), seasonings, chopped onions and hot sauce. There's also Texas Caviar, a cold dip made with Black-eyed peas, pinto beans, black beans, diced celery, diced green bell pepper, corn and tomatoes; and a simple Black-Eyed Pea Salad.

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If you're looking to try some more modern recipes to welcome the New Year, be sure to check out Irene Matys' Swiss Chard and Black-Eye Pea Bruschetta, a Greek-inspired dish that tops black-eyed peas, rainbow Swiss chard and anchovies on warm slices of rustic baguette. Or try this White Bean, Black-Eyed Pea, Avocado Crostini recipe from Valerie's Kitchen.

Take it from us — either of these vibrant and filling dishes is the perfect appetizer for your upcoming New Year's Day shindig!

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Black-eyed Peas Food Lucky New Year’s Cooking New Year's Day Southern Folklore Southern Foods