Whenever I think about superstition, my mind almost always turns first to Tom Sawyer. He and his gang were fierce believers in this almost practical magic that relates certain behaviors to otherwise unrelated outcomes: dead cats and a special chant will cure warts, a dog’s howl signals death, and an inch worm found on the body brings the promise of a new suit. And it’s an enduring part of real life, too. Avoiding black cats, cracks in the sidewalk, and opening umbrellas indoors remain second thoughts in my mind even today despite Stevie Wonder’s admonition:
When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then we suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way.
Still, superstition is often rooted in practical elements; walking under a ladder, especially an occupied one, may not be unlucky, but it isn’t particularly smart. Similarly, a broken mirror may not really foretell 7 years of woe, but shattered glass seems to linger longer than the proverbial bad penny – and it’s certainly no fun to find a remaining shard in your big toe.
But with food superstitions, the practical element becomes more elusive. In my family we had the traditional Southern meal for January 1: black eyed peas, collard greens, and hog jowl. It was served without much commentary – it was just good luck for no good reason.
If you google New Year’s superstitions, though, you’ll learn that black eyed peas represent coins (albeit funny looking ones), or that they indicate coming prosperity because they plump when you cook’em. There are plenty of explanations to satisfy the curious. But it’s the money and wealth associations that seem to be the most enduring: greens, because they represent the color of our currency, indicate a flow of cash; and pork, owing to its richness or the pig’s habit of successful and forward rooting, foretells a year of wealth. So, eat lots and prosper.
Naturally, we’re not convinced of that relationship between a good luck meal and a growing bank account (primarily owing to 40-some years of experience), but are a couple of other elements of this superstition, particularly as it relates to black-eyed peas, that have some merit to our way of thinking.
The first associates good fortune with an absence of vanity. Black eyed peas and other pulses are humble foodstuffs that are often associated with the poor, at least that’s true before New Southern cooking elevated them to the food pantheon. My guess is that somebody decided that the meek would literally inherit the earth, so perhaps if you started the year with a little less swagger and ate like the meek then you, too, could qualify for a little piece of earth and a nugget of gold.
That sounds silly; but it’s true that if you’ll start eating better, then your fortunes will improve in a number of ways – even if your purse doesn’t swell up like a slow-cooked pea. Black-eyed peas are good for you.
The other origin story of this little legume’s magic rests in the miracle of gratitude. During and after the ravages of the Civil War, when any foodstuff worth eating was burned or taken, the humble cowpea and its cousins were left alone – by most accounts they weren’t considered fit for human consumption. But starving confederate soldiers, who were sometimes able to make a meal of them, counted themselves lucky to have them.
By the same token, for most slaves sustenance came from food that wasn’t quite suited for wealthier white tables – so it was the likes of the black-eyed pea, along with things like collard greens, hog jowl, etc. that made up the meals of the enslaved. It may be that, like the Seder table, a meal of humble foods celebrates the good fortune of a people freed from bondage. That was especially true in January of 1863 when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
This January, we’ll celebrate the opening of a New Year and all the hope it brings by filling our bean and rice bowls with black-eyed peas. We’ll also be serving Brunch from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. so you can eat some superstition in style. While we can’t guarantee any good luck for the entire year, we do promise good taste every day.