It is a Texas (and Southern) tradition to have a helping of black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to ensure good luck in the year ahead. We’ve been eating them on the holiday for nigh on 300 years now. Before the black-eyed pea came to the Americas, it was grown in India and Asia. And the little pea was a symbol of good luck to ancient cultures, showing up first in the Babylonian Talmud, written in 500 C.E.
In Texas and the South, it has been said that our love of black-eyed peas peaked during the Civil War. When General William Sherman cut his swath through Georgia during his famous 1864 March to the Sea, Union troops burned everything considered a crop but spared what they called “field peas” because they were thought to be animal fodder and not fit for human consumption. It was then that we discovered they weren’t only fit for human consumption, they were quite made quite tasty with a little educated culinary assistance.
That’s a cowpea with a mighty impressive history and following, so much so that there is even a band named for them. I can’t imagine anyone hopping around on stage, singing and calling themselves the Zucchinis or the Rutabegas. Nope. Black-Eyed Peas wins for catchiness and popularity.
Some of y’all are probably gagging at the thought of eating black-eyed peas. Some of y’all are like me in that it’s about the only pea you can eat without gagging. Either way, it’s only fitting that I mention black-eyed peas as a Texas tradition, especially this time of year.
As I was preparing to pen this column, Sentinel writer, Mike Heckman brought up a good point during the discussion of the legume in the newsroom. “Why is it most people don’t realize that black-eyed peas need some flavoring before you eat them?” he asked.
Heckman is right. Most black-eyed pea enthusiasts know to serve the things with bacon, ham bones, and some diced onion. The peas should be generously seasoned with a hot chili sauce or a pepper-flavored vinegar. My mother and I like to dollop jalapeno jelly in our peas as an alternative.
I’m drooling on my keyboard as I write this.
If black-eyed peas are something you’ve tried and cannot come to terms with, give its cousin, the purple hull pea, a shot. General consensus in my family is that the purple hull has flavor to it, whereas the black-eyed variety does not.
We Texans love our peas so much that there is a festival dedicated to it in the middle of the summer in Athens. The Black-Eyed Pea Jamboree is a celebration based on the town’s alleged heritage as the largest producer of the peas in the world from the 1930s into the 1970s. To learn more about Athens and its love affair with black-eyed peas, visit texaslesstraveled.com/blackeyedpea.htm. I’ve been to the festival and it’s worth the trip.
Traditionally, you are supposed to eat your peas on New Year’s Day. Of course, you’re reading this about a week after the fact, but it’s never too late to test your luck. Go ahead and fix up a mess of black-eyed peas right now.
Supposedly, black-eyed peas are a good source of calcium, folate and vitamin A. The United States Department of Agriculture lists them in the category “meat/meat alternative” as well as “fruit/vegetable” in its nutritional information, which is good news for vegetarians and vegans.
All that being said, eat your peas. Not only are they good luck and in good taste, they’re good for you.
I suggest you make Texas Caviar, a Texas tradition from the mid-20th Century. Now I’m gonna admit something that I wouldn’t ordinarily do, but Texas Caviar was invented by a New Yorker. Helen Corbitt was the director of food service for Neiman Marcus.
Corbitt was famous in the 1950s for her cookbooks. When she got to Texas, she took our love of black-eyed peas, gussied ‘em up and took ‘em over the Houston Country Club for New Year’s Eve. The dish was so well received that she took ‘em down to the Driskill Hotel in Austin, where it was dubbed Texas Caviar, or so the legend goes.
I made Texas Caviar for the first time this year. Y’all, it’s better than most salsas and packs about the same wallop depending on the spiciness of your peppers. So Happy New Year, y’all. And eat your peas!
TEXAS CAVIAR 1/2 onion, chopped 1 bunch green onion, chopped 1 green pepper, chopped 6 jalapeno chilies, minced 1 tbsp. garlic, minced 2 tomatoes, diced 8 oz. bottle Italian dressing 1/3 bunch cilantro, chopped 1 can Hominy, drained 2 cans black eyed peas, drained Combined all ingredients and refrigerate 2 hours. Serve with corn chips or tortilla chips.
I suggest you cheat and get some pico de gallo to avoid chopping up all the onions, peppers, chilies and cilantro. No need to fuss, just mix it up and enjoy.