Tracing the Origins of Black Americans’ Tradition of Eating Black-Eyed Peas and Greens on New Year’s Day

Dishes like black-eyed peas, served here with rice and salt pork, are among the foods thought to bring good luck, health and abundance. (Credit…Kate Sears for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Monica Pierini.)

On New Year’s Day, Black American families around the country will sit down to eat a variation on green vegetables and cowpeas, joining in an enduring tradition meant to usher in opportunity in the year ahead.

“I don’t let a New Year’s Day go by without having some form of greens, pork and black-eyed peas,” the food historian Jessica B. Harris said.

The choice of greens, usually cooked with pork for flavor, comes from the perception among Black Americans that folded collard greens look like paper money, said Adrian Miller, an author and food scholar. Eating greens on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day is believed to bring about greater financial prosperity. The peas promise good luck, health and abundance.

But while these rituals have become largely associated with the American South, their roots can be traced back to the meeting of West African and European traditions, Mr. Miller said. Collard greens, for instance, originated in Northern Europe.

“Collards is a corruption of colewort — colewort is any non-heading cabbage,” said Dr. Harris, the author of “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America.” “They became part of the foodways of African Americans. The Africanism is in the cooking of them — not in the green itself. That cooking method of long, low and slow, and with the potlikker being consumed, is a very different thing.”

And celebrating on the first day of the year, is more of a global tradition, Mr. Miller said. In Italy, for example, lentils — said to resemble coins — are cooked down with pork and served for luck. In West Africa, he added, “there were certainly auspicious days. But this idea that the first day of the calendar year — and doing something on that day — would bring good luck, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist in West African societies prior to European contact.”

West African spiritual practices often revolved around deities who had favorite foods like black-eyed peas, which are native to the continent. The forced migration of enslaved Africans to North America and their interactions with European colonists led to a convergence of customs.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Kayla Stewart