Good Luck, Dollar Greens, and Penny Peas

Jackson, Mississippi stands at a crossroads in the Deep South, so it was a shock for me to discover people here who do not serve greens and peas on New Year’s Eve or Day. 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, with their ethnic and rural connotations, coarse and common.

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. Stewed 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, but almost invariably turnips or mustards, collards and cabbages. 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 and most cursory 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 a relationship is unworthy of the morally evolved. In the past, people were known to have cooked peas with coins in them to ensure wealth (a risky practice), yet peas, largely because of their shape, are symbolic of coins, as leaf greens are of paper money, an obvious analogy in this country where the currency is green on the “back” side.

In other parts of the country, New Year’s foods usually typify family holiday traditions. We should find comfort in knowing that our traditional New Year’s table bears hope for the coming year.

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How to Cook a Green Ham

Ham is the quintessential meat of the Southern table, either as main dish, or providing a supporting role in dozens of sides across our sideboard.

But as a great many of those smart-ass hillbillies from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky–the absolute worst–will tell you (in annoyingly nasal, condescendingly reverential tones), there are hams, and then there are hams.

The best hams are dry cured, usually with a mix of salt and sugar. These hams can be eaten very thinly sliced without cooking, but they need to be soaked in water for at least a day if baked for the table. These are often labeled country hams. So-called city hams, the kind you most often find in the supermarket, are wet-cured by brine injection. Smoked hams are usually a variant of both, with smoke and brine both providing preservation and flavor.

Then you have the green ham, which is what your old granny called a leg of pork. You’ll find it sold as a “fresh” ham. You may have to look for it, you may even have to order one, but a green ham is no more trouble than any other kind, and it’s a worthy option to the nitrate-infused clubs of meat you’ve been serving all these years.

A green ham will have a rind over a layer of fat. Score the rind in a tight crisscross pattern with a very sharp knife (honest to God, I use a box cutter), and coat with garlic, sage, a little brown sugar, coarsely-ground pepper, and sea salt. Put sprigs of rosemary and coarsely chopped white onions in the bottom of your roaster with enough water to cover. Set the ham fatty side up on a rack.

Place in a hot oven, 450. After thirty minutes, lower to 350. For a ten-pound ham, give it three hours or until that little bone next to the big one wiggles freely. Let sit for at least an hour before carving.