Traditions are what make our holidays special, no matter what we celebrate. And more often than not, food is at the center of those traditions. When it comes to New Year’s, black-eyed peas have a special place on the table. But what are black-eyed peas? Where did they come from? And how did the tradition start? Let’s dive into this special New Year’s meal and explore its origins in how African Americans used black-eyed peas and their connection to West Africa.
What Are Black-Eyed Peas?
Black-eyed peas is actually a misnomer for this powerful little food. They’re actually a variety of bean, and they’re categorized as a legume alongside lentils and chickpeas. They’re a variety of cowpea.
Where Do Black-Eyed Peas Come From?
Since prehistoric times, black-eyed peas have been cultivated in China and India, and they were eaten even by the ancient Greeks and Romans. They’re also native to West Africa, and they were transported to the United States via the Middle Passage of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Enslaved Africans brought them to the Lowcountry coastal regions of the Carolinas and Georgia more than 300 years ago.
In West Africa, black-eyed peas are eaten in stews, porridge (like Ewa Riro – keep reading to learn more!), and paired with garri, yams, or plantains. Plantains are also sometimes usually added to and cooked with the porridge. Sometimes, they’re also used to make fritters (akara in the Yoruba language).
In the United States, they were planted in the gardens of enslaved African Americans and were used in soups, stews, and fritters as well as to feed animals. This may be tied to black-eyed peas’ West African origins as well – the skin of the beans is usually given to animals or tossed out into the street as animal feed..
When we here at Egunsi Foods make Gbegiri soup, we up-cycle! We skin the beans and give the skin to farmers to use as animal feed.
Why Are Black-Eyed Peas Eaten on New Year’s?
Black-eyed peas are eaten on New Year’s Day in the United States to usher in a year of good luck or monetary gain. The idea is that the more black-eyed peas you eat, the luckier you’ll be. This particular practice stems from Southern tradition, but it’s far from the only customary New Year’s dish to bring luck – in Italy they eat lentils, in Greece they eat pomegranates, and in Japan they eat soba noodles.
Black-eyed peas are also usually thought to bring good luck since they swell while being cooked, and the increase in size symbolizes one’s fortunes increasing.
In Southern celebrations, the black-eyed peas are usually paired and served with collard greens, since they’re green like money and also help to ensure that you’ll have a financially prosperous year. If the black-eyed peas are stewed with tomatoes, it symbolizes wealth and health. Some people even add a penny or a dime to the pot of peas, and whoever finds the coin in their serving will have the most luck that year. You might also find cornbread on the table, since it’s gold like, well… gold!
New Year's Day Black-Eyed Peas, Epicurious
Where Did the Tradition Come From?
But where did the tradition come from? Cooking black-eyed peas with rice is African in origin, and variations of the dish spread throughout the South (this dish is referred to as Hoppin’ John – keep reading to learn more about it!).
We know that black-eyed peas reached America’s shores with the enslaved Africans who were brought over from the African continent, but there are a couple of stories about how black-eyed peas came to be eaten on New Year’s Day. The first is relatively improbable: during the Civil War, Union soldiers destroyed most crops, but they largely ignored the fields of black-eyed peas. Southerners relied on the crop to survive the winter, and black-eyed peas gained the reputation of a lucky and lifesaving food.
The second origin story is much more likely and pays direct homage to where black-eyed peas came from. When enslaved African Americans were officially freed with the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, they ate black-eyed peas to celebrate. The tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day has stuck around ever since.
Toni Tipton-Martin documents this first New Year’s celebration in her book, Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking. She shares how the origin of Watch Night was December 31, 1862 when enslaved African Americans in the Lowcountry congregated to await the news of their freedom. On the menu for their celebrations was Hoppin’ John, collard greens, and ribs.
Did They Celebrate New Year’s With Black-Eyed Peas in West Africa?
Eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s is a distinctly American tradition from the South, despite black-eyed peas coming from West Africa. But that doesn’t mean they’re totally disconnected from West African traditions.
While West Africans didn’t have a comparable New Year’s Day tradition, they did celebrate certain special or auspicious days with symbolic food and a traditional meal, and black-eyed peas were usually on the list for a special occasion. Even today, they’re often served for celebratory events like the birth of a child or a homecoming.
Black-eyed peas have also long been considered to be good luck in West African tradition, since they’re thought to ward off the Evil Eye. They resemble other amulets and symbols, like buckeyes, that are thought to serve the same purpose.
The particular idea of doing something special on the first of the year to bring good luck for the months ahead seems to have come directly from European contact.
Ways to Make Black-Eyed Peas
Like many dishes and ingredients that have found their way around the world, black-eyed peas can be made in a variety of different ways. And while Hoppin’ John is the most traditional when it comes to a New Year’s Day table, it’s not the only way you can enjoy these mighty little beans!
Although Hoppin’ John is served throughout the year, it is, as we’ve mentioned, traditional for a New Year’s meal since eating black-eyed peas is thought to bring good luck for the year ahead. The earliest recipe for Hoppin’ John can be found in a cookbook from 1847 called The Carolina Housewife.
Most recipes for Hoppin’ John call for cooking the black-eyed peas with rice, pork (chopped pork, hog jowls, hambones, fatback, or bacon), and various seasonings. Sometimes chopped onions and hot sauce are added, but hot sauce is almost always on the table for people to add as they like!
Hoppin' John, Bon Appétit
Texas Caviar is another great way to enjoy black-eyed peas that blends Southern and Mexican flavors. It’s sometimes also referred to as Cowboy Caviar, and it makes for a great, refreshing side dish, especially in the summer. It’s also delicious to eat with tortilla chips!
The easiest way to think of Texas Caviar is as a zesty corn and black-eyed pea salad. It also usually includes bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapenos.
The recipe was apparently invented by a Texan woman in 1940 who served the dish at a New Year’s Eve celebration and later at a Texas hotel, where it was dubbed “Texas Caviar” as a play on real caviar.
Texas Caviar, The Comfort of Cooking
Ewa Riro is a Nigerian black-eyed pea stew that’s delicious on its own or served with a number of different customary sides. You can eat it with rice, or soak it up with a dense bread called Agege, which has a texture similar to Challah. You’ll also find it paired with fried plantains, boiled yam, or garri.
In my recipe for Ewa Riro, I serve it with a topping of roasted corn, since I love to take advantage of the delicious sweet corn when it’s in season in the summer. It’s somewhat similar to Texas Caviar in that pairing of corn and black-eyed peas! Ewa Riro is usually made with palm oil, and I use my Ata Din Din sauce as the tomato/red pepper base. It packs a flavorful punch! You can add more crushed habanero pepper for more heat if you’d like!
Kunde is a Kenyan black-eyed pea stew, and the word “Kunde” is the Swahili word for cowpeas (which black-eyed peas are a variety of). The stew is fragrant, flavored with peanuts and tomatoes. In some cases, people add root vegetables like sweet potatoes or leafy greens to pack in the nutrition, but no matter what it’s a quick and filling meal.
In other cases, this stew might be made with coconut or coconut milk. The leaf of the black-eyed pea plant is also edible, and can be used to make mrenda, a traditional Kenyan vegetable.
Red Red is a Ghanaian black-eyed pea stew that apparently gets its name from the red palm oil and the tomato sauce the beans are stewed in. The main spices and aromatics used to make this stew are usually garlic, ginger, onions, salt, and peppers, like scotch bonnet.
Traditional Red Red usually also includes garri as a garnish sprinkled over the top. It’s typically served with fried plantains and white rice. Although easily made vegetarian, Red Red is often made with smoked or dried fish for extra flavor, and it can be stewed with meat like beef or goat.
This dish can also be made vegan friendly if you choose to exclude the meat and/or fish used for flavoring. To get the same richness, you may use peanuts, peanut butter, or coconut like the Kenyan Kunde to boost flavor.
Red Red, My Recipe Joint
Usher in a New Year of Luck and Prosperity
However you choose to make black-eyed peas, they can be a great addition to your table this New Year’s as we look ahead to the next year. And in hoping for a year of good luck by preparing a dish like Hoppin’ John or Ewa Riro, we’re also looking to our past and remembering all of those who came before us.
The African Americans who ate Hoppin’ John on the first day of 1863 to celebrate their newly proclaimed freedom surely had a new sense of hope for the year ahead. As we look forward, we can draw inspiration from the memory of that hope.
We here at Egunsi Foods are wishing you a Happy New Year and plenty of good health, wealth, and luck!