Jackson, Mississippi stands at a crossroads in the Deep South, so it was a shock to discover people here who do not serve greens and peas on New Year’s Eve or Day to ensure good fortune in the coming year. Of course, like any Southern metropolitan area, Jackson has people living here from across the nation and the world who have good reason not to know they should have a pot of peas on the stove on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1, but you also have people here living in detached, pretentious affluence who consider peas, collards, mustard and turnip greens, all with their ethnic and rural connotations, coarse and common, and upgrade with Brussel’s sprouts and hummus, replacing the traditional ham with a crown rib roast.
Fortunately such people are by far the exception rather than the rule, and most people in Mississippi’s capitol city cook leafy greens and field peas at the turn of the year in observance of a regional tradition. Black-eyed peas are a type of cowpea, as are crowder peas, and serving them instead of any other variety of beans (for they are beans) is mandatory. This culinary tradition entered the Southern repertoire by way of Sephardic Jews who settled in South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana. Greens are almost always served as well, but the type of greens is a matter for the most part a matter of preference, to a lesser extent that of geography, and involves three principal types: greens (turnip and mustard), collards and cabbage. In the broadest sense, cabbage seems to be most often served in urban households, greens in rural households, and collards most often in the lower South and along the east coast, but this statement is based on the least systematic research.
The tradition that associates these foods with financial prosperity is clouded in folklore, but then luck has always been associated with riches, though there are those among us who would say such an relationship is unworthy of the more ethically evolved. In the past, people were known to have cooked peas with coins in them to ensure wealth, a dangerous practice considering the risks of choking and poisoning. Still peas, largely because of their shape, are symbolic of coins, as leaf greens are with paper money, an obvious analogy in this country where the currency is green on the “back” side.
Needless to say, peas and greens are not a tradition in other parts of the country, where New Year’s foods are usually nothing more than an accompaniment to revelry and alcohol abuse. While such activities are by no means unknown in the South, we should find comfort in knowing that our traditional New Year’s table bears more hopes for the coming year than a hangover.