Good Luck, Dollar Greens and Penny Peas

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.

Collards at Tara

Like most psychotics fiction writers  are more involved with the turmoil of the human condition (usually theirs) than soups and sandwiches (like the rest of us), but you’re going to find food mentioned in many novels. It is, after all, an essential element of existence itself.

Margaret Mitchell was born to an upper-class home in Atlanta at the turn of the last century, and her family roots sank deep in antebellum Georgia. Given the social dynamics of her upbringing, she was certainly well-informed when it came to that period’s Southern table, so we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find a notable description of an antebellum spread in Gone with the Wind.

When Ashley came home from the war for Christmas, the table was still graced with Aunt Pittypat’s linen and china, but about the only thing to eat were sweet potatoes and a skinny rooster Uncle Peter caught, and Scarlett remembered Tara’s groaning boards:

There were apples, Yams, peanuts and milk on the table at Tara but never enough of even this primitive fare. A the sight of them, three times a day, her memory would rush back to the old days, the meals of the old days, the candle-lit table and the food perfuming the air.

How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste! Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal. Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut. And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream. The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.

While most of the dishes seem apt for a wealthy, socially prominent Georgia plantation meal in the 1830’s, some people (admittedly me among them) might find the presence of collards in what doubtless must have been a porcelain tureen jarring because I’m such a stuck-up redneck, but stewed collards fit on the table in any damn thing that will hold them. I’ll be the first one to say turnips are good, too, but not raw with red mud on them, for chrissakes.

To cook, pick through greens, discarding the tough stems and ribs, wash very well and place in a deep stew pot with only enough liquid to cover a third of the leaves. Collards, like most greens, cook down considerably and as they do make what is called a “pot likker”, which is a somewhat legendary element of Southern cuisine. Most people include a meat to season, usually pork in the form of ham bones or a thick rind bacon, but today’s more health-conscious cooks will use a smoked turkey neck or tail, and some simply cook the greens in a vegetable broth. Use a minimum of salt before cooking, perhaps a teaspoon to help leach out the liquids from the leaves, and adjust before bringing to the table.

Pepper vinegar is the traditional seasoning in the mid-South, but a red pepper (e.g. Crystal or Tabasco-type) sauce is more often used near the Gulf. Here in Jackson, we use what we like.