And Now You Know: Why do we eat what we eat on New Year’s Day?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 5, 2019

By Mike Louviere

In the South, there is the tradition of eating black-eyed peas, cabbage or collard greens, and cornbread on New Year’s Day. Some people have followed the tradition for most of their lives and have no idea how the tradition of eating such humble food started.

The black-eyed pea is one of five foods mentioned in the Jewish Talmud to be eaten on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

The traditional saying that goes with the food is “Peas for pennies, greens for dollars, and cornbread for gold.”

Black-eyed peas were domesticated about 5,000 years ago in West Africa. Like okra, the peas came to America with the slaves who were brought to the South. When General Sherman’s troops went through the South and confiscated anything and everything of worth from the Southern families, they ignored the black eyed peas. The peas were considered animal food and not fit for human consumption. The Southern families were grateful to have the peas. The peas were often the only thing the families had to eat.

Because peas “plump up”, or increase in size when they are cooked, they are considered prosperous food.

Tradition says that a person should eat 365 peas on New Year’s Day to ensure that they have good luck each day of the new year. Eating less than that will only ensure good luck for the number of days equal to the number of peas eaten.

People will sometimes leave one uneaten pea on their plate to pass on good luck to their neighbors.

Some families will boil a penny or a dime to sterilize it and then put the coin in the pot of peas. The person who gets the coin in their plate of peas is said to receive special good luck in the coming year.

Cabbage and collard greens are crops that come in during the latter part of the year and are plentiful by New Year’s Day. The greens were another food that the Yankee troops considered not worth the trouble to either take or burn in the fields. Their green color is representative of the color of money. To eat the greens on New Year’s Day is said to ensure that you will have money in the coming year.

Cornbread was often the only bread that most families in the South had during the days after the Civil War. Corn meal was another foodstuff that the Yankee troops considered worthless. Again, the southerners considered it a lucky break.

The golden color of the cornbread represents gold. Eating cornbread is another food that is said to bring on prosperity and good luck.

Most southern families found pork the meat easiest to preserve. It was done with a heavy coat of salt and called “salt pork.” It was another food the Yankees wanted nothing to do with.

Pork is the meat that goes with the “prosperity foods.” A hog only roots forward when foraging, and cannot turn their head to the side, they must turn their whole body, as a result they will always be facing forward.

Eating pork on New Year’s Day means that the person eating pork will always be moving ahead in the coming year.

In addition to eating the foods that are said to bring good luck and prosperity in the new year, there are some who will eat black eyed peas and cabbage for breakfast. They believe that the first thing you eat in the new year should be the foods that will bring you the good luck and prosperity.

“And now you know.”