Good Luck, Dollar Greens, and Penny Peas

Like any Southern city, Jackson, Mississippi has residents from across globe who have good reason not to know they should have a pot of peas on the stove on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1, as well as people living in detached, pretentious affluence who consider peas, collard, mustard, and turnip greens, coarse, common, and unfit for their table.

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 New Year in observance of regional tradition. Black-eyed peas 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 usually served as well, because leafy cool weather crops thrive in our open winters. The type of greens is primarily a matter of preference, to a lesser extent of geography,  but invariably turnip or mustard, collard or cabbage, often a mix. As a cursory observation, cabbage is most often served in urban households, turnip and mustard greens in the country, and collards more often in the lower South, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

The tradition that associates these foods with financial prosperity is clouded in folklore, but then luck has always been associated with riches. In the past, people were known to have cooked peas with coins to ensure wealth, yet because of their shape peas are suggestive of coins, as leaf greens are of paper money, a more obvious analogy in this country where our currency is greenbacks.

However pecuniary, it’s comforting that the South’s traditional New Year’s table offers buoyancy for the uncertain future.

How to Cook a Green Ham

Ham is the quintessential meat of the Southern table, either as main dish, or providing support in dozens of sides across the board.

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.