Celebrate New Year’s Day with traditional Southern dishes that promise to bring luck, wealth and good health.
Many people have their traditions to help them ring in the New Year, but leave it to the South to contribute a delicious meal rich in history and superstition, as well as taste. The traditional New Year’s meal in the South must consist of four things – black-eyed peas, pork, greens and cornbread. It seems like a modest meal, but this custom predates the invention of modern refrigeration. All of these items were inexpensive and easily accessible in the South during the winter.
Growing up in California, I was never aware of the role these four items played in making sure the New Year began the right way. I had never even heard of the tradition until I moved to Georgia. Although these foods are eaten throughout the year, each component has a specific meaning when it comes to New Year’s.
Black-eyed peas had originally been considered food for livestock. They were later given to slaves, which were all they had to use in order to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation on the first of January in 1863. Since then, black-eyed peas have become a staple in soul food. According to folklore, the tradition grew even bigger throughout the South during the Civil War. When Sherman’s troops raided the Confederate food supplies, they mostly ignored the black-eyed pea crop because it was thought of as animal food. It was this humble and nourishing crop that enabled the Southerners to survive the winter. From then on, black-eyes peas gained the reputation of bringing luck and good fortune.
In the New Year’s dish, black-eyed peas represent coins to bring wealth and health. Some people even include exactly 365 peas, one for each day of the upcoming year. It used to be that a dime or a shiny penny would be hidden in the pot, and whoever had that coin in their bowl would receive the most luck (unless, of course, the coin is accidentally swallowed!).
Pork, another important component, has a special place in the South. Pigs are considered symbolic of health and wealth because a pig can feed a family for the entire winter due to its meaty and fatty content. Southerners also use pretty much the entire pig — whether it’s a whole pork roast, hog jowls, fatback, ham hocks, bacon or ribs. Traditionally, cured pork or hog jowl is included because it can be stored for long periods and would be the most accessible during the winter.
Pork also represents progress because pigs push forward, rooting themselves in the ground before moving, and pigs can’t look backward without completely turning around. Therefore, eating pork will encourage you to look to the future and ensure that you will move forward in the New Year.
Greens are supposed to symbolize money, since they are flat and green like dollar bills. While the type of greens can vary by region or taste preference — collard, turnip, mustard, chard, kale or even cabbage — collard greens are usually the vegetable of choice for this traditional meal. It is widely believed that the more greens eaten, the larger your fortune will be that year.
And finally, it isn’t a complete Southern New Year’s meal without cornbread on the side. Native Americans first introduced the cornmeal mixture, and when wheat was not widely available, Southerners made cornbread instead. The color of cornbread represents gold for New Year’s, bringing wealth and prosperity. For the most authentic and traditional Southern flavor, very little sugar and flour is used.
While there are many different variations of meals containing black-eyed peas, pork, greens and cornbread, Hoppin’ John is considered one of the South’s most traditional New Year’s dishes. Originally a Carolina Lowcountry dish, Hoppin’ John is a culmination of the main three ingredients slow cooked with rice. Eating leftover Hoppin’ John the day after New Year’s (a practice known as “Skippin’ Jenny”) shows one’s frugality and will only increase your chances of prosperity in 2015.
Happy New Year!