Peas and prosperity

opinion by Maylon Rice

Editor’s note: Maylon Rice is a former newspaper reporter, columnist and editor at several newspapers over the past 40 years. He ran, unsuccessfully for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. A native of Warren, Rice lives in Fayetteville.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.

I doubt there is anything really scientific to the New Year’s tradition of eating black-eyed peas for prosperity. But you can bet they will be served in lots of places in the South on New Year’s Day.

Confirming they will be on the menu at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion is a given. Once when, the late Witt Stephens was lording over the Stephens Empire, if “Uncle Witt” was in the office, black-eyed peas would be on his executive dinner room menu on that day.

Today, the ultra-fancy hotel (The Capitol Hotel) just down from the Stephens Building will serve up black-eyed peas of some sort. The same holiday fare item can be found at James At The Mill in Johnson, Bryce’s Cafeteria in Texarkana and other fine eateries all over Arkansas.

Every national franchise like the Cracker Barrel will have them stewing for the traveling crowds on New Year’s Day.

We can hope that with Arkansas’ bi-annual budget session looming, each of our 135 elected state Senators and state Representatives, in their individual household will hold forth with a serving of black-eyed peas to attest to their impact on the prosperity of Arkansas in the year ahead.

Maybe Gov. Mike Beebe, or those seeking his chair in 2014, will also hold forth eating black-eyed peas and hoping the economic stability and future finances of Arkansas will be solid and prosperous.

Surely, there is not a modern day Arkansas mayor, such as Lionel Jordan of Fayetteville or Sandy Sanders of Fort Smith; or County Judges Marilyn Edwards in Washington County or David Hudson in Sebastian County, who would forget to have a serving of black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day? Would they dare?

Most respectable eateries that cater to a sit-down plate lunch will have the black-eyed peas. The dish will be on the cafeteria style-lunch line, or on menu and some Arkansas establishments even serve up a side of black-eyed pears ala carte to all who dine with them on New Year’s Day.

So why is this tradition so important?

Hard time and uncertain economic times are a lynch-pin on why this tradition sticks with us Southerners. It dates back to the Civil War when marauding Union forces often left field corn and such row crops as black-eyed or field-peas alone when foraging on Southern soil. The Union soldiers suspected such staples were intended for livestock only.

The black-eyed pea or black-eyed bean, a legume, is a subspecies of the cowpea, grown around the world for its medium-sized, edible bean. The common commercial one is called the California Black eye; it is pale-colored with a prominent black spot in the shape of an eye.

Several food historians will tell us the tradition of black-eyed peas being a special food came across the Atlantic with slaves and that West Africans also believed that the eye in the black-eyed pea helped ward off the “evil eye.” Another tie is the belief of Jewish people that the black-eyed pea is a symbol and the eating of symbols were indeed good luck.

Eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s has long been an African-American and Southern tradition. It signifies luck or prosperity, and is one of several New Year’s foods that are associated with good fortune.

In the southern United States, black-eyed peas are typically cooked with a pork product for flavoring (such as bacon, ham bones, fatback, or hog jowl), diced onion, and served with a hot chili sauce or a peppery-flavored vinegar concoction. You must be a Yankee if you have to ask someone the difference in ham bones, fat back or a how jowl. Or, if you don’t know what pepper-sauce is?

There is no sweeter or tastier meat, than that of a long stewed hog jowl which falls off the bone in a vat of black-eyed peas on a cold, cloudy New Year’s Day in Arkansas.

Seasonings? Why they are as varied as the recipes for black-eyed peas. Some like a little salt and pepper. Others like a little pepper sauce. Or just a taste of a malted vinegar. Better yet, dab on a little of that commercial Louisiana hot sauce in the narrow necked red-bottle.

Now what else to serve to afford prosperity in your home or business or level of city, county or state government like a dish of black-eyed peas? Like all of America today, there are regional variations to this basic Southern fare.

Just like in barbeque, the black-eye peas served on New Year’s Day is a grudge match between Texas and North Carolina cuisines. Both call their regional dish “Hopping Jack” a concoction of rice, black-eyed peas and pork. Another slightly different take on the black-eyed peas from Texas is called, what else, “Texas caviar.” This is made of  black-eyed peas marinated in Italian salad dressing and chopped garlic, and served cold. That’s a real Yuppy concoction, no doubt.

The traditional black-eyed pea meal also includes collard, turnip, or mustard greens, and ham. The peas, since they swell when cooked, symbolize prosperity; the greens symbolize money; the pork, because pigs root forward when foraging, represents positive motion.

Cornbread also often accompanies this meal. say the cookbook writers, foodies and other culinary experts. Sure, I tell you, cornbread must accompany this dish. Store bought bread just won’t do.


Happy New Year everybody.

Now eat them black-eyed peas.

And let us all hope for a prosperous year ahead of us.

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Jowl Bone?

"Long stewed hog jowl falling off the bone?" A jowl bone would be a cheeky proposition Mahlon.