Collards and Black-Eyed Peas, the Witches Brew

I asked. “What do witches eat?” “Witches loves pork meat,” she said. “They loves rice and potatoes. They loves black-eyed peas and cornbread. Lima beans, too, and collard greens and cabbage, all cooked in pork fat. Witches is old folks, most of them. They don’t care none for low-cal. You pile that food on a paper plate, stick a plastic fork in it, and set it down by the side of a tree. And that feeds the witches.” Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil— John Berendt

It is a witches brew that feeds Southerners who aren’t witches, especially on New Year’s Day. Gather ‘round children, your social studies lesson is about to begin.

Southern culture is steeped with superstition, from painting our porch ceilings “haint blue” (Gulla/Geechie) to protect against evil spirits, to hanging a mirror beside our front door (Appalachian) to occupy the devil. Another superstition involves the love for black-eyed peas and collard greens and their relationship to luck and prosperity.

Eating collard greens and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day are a Southern tradition that has spread to other parts of the land, south to north and south to west and the historian in me loves to ask the question, “Where did the tradition of eating collard greens and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day originate and why?”

As with most “ancient” history, there is “gracious plenty” of speculation and like all histories, are written by the victors or at least by those people who remained in power.

We Southerners can all agree that peas are the embodiment of blessings or luck and collard greens, prosperity but how did it get to be that way? Why did it spread so widely?

Peas are the oldest of the New Year’s traditions, used by Jewish folk to celebrate the New Year as far back as 500 AD. The Jewish tradition of eating black-eyed peas for fertility and luck continues today during the Jewish New Year some 2500 years later. Our Southern tradition doesn’t date that far back but is just as strongly embedded.

The origin is not as clear-cut in the Southern United States. According to “some” White Southerners, peas became a New Year’s staple because of that dastardly General William T. Sherman and his infamous “March to the Sea” during the Civil War. According to “some” historians, Sherman deemed salt pork and dried peas to be unfit for human consumption and left them behind, giving starving Southerners and Confederate soldiers a “blessing” as they were “lucky” enough to have it to stave off starvation.

In another tradition, Black Southerners, read slaves, made black-eyed peas a staple for New Year’s celebrations because the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, and black-eyed peas were their only abundant food source.

Once considered a crop fit only for livestock, starving Southerners of both races consumed black-eyed peas out of necessity and transformed them into a symbolic and well-loved tradition.

I’m sure there is truth in both stories but what I know as truth, black-eyed peas date from the time slaves brought them from Africa. Black-eyed peas became so pervasive throughout the old slave states that black-eyed peas appear in recipes as varied as Cowboy Caviar down in Texas to Hoppin’ John in South Carolina to Peas with Ham up in North Carolina.

Dried beans of all varieties have been a staple, certainly a staple in my childhood, of Southern cooking especially during the dismal, gray days of winter and have a quality of taste that far surpasses those canned today. They were never used as livestock food during my lifetime unless the cow got loose in the garden. In my grandmother’s kitchen, dried peas were sorted through, washed, and then allowed to soak in water overnight before being rinsed again and put on to cook with salt, onions, garlic, and, of course, pork fat.

Collard greens are a bit more straight forward. Collard greens, along with their cousin turnip greens, are typically one of the only fresh vegetables that you can find in January in the South, so their place in the New Year’s food bill of fare is quite practical. They are also inexpensive and nutritious. More importantly, they are quite tasty when cooked in bacon grease, salt pork, or with a ham hock and seasoned with red pepper flakes and vinegar to add a little heat and tartness.

How collards came to be regarded as a precursor to prosperity is unknown, except that collard greens are green like paper money. I have been told “every mouthful of collard greens is worth a thousand dollars in your pocket.” For this reason, greens have replaced cabbage or sauerkraut in most Southern New Year’s celebrations.

With all that pot liquor created from cooking you must have something to sop it up with and that leads us to cornbread, corn being a staple in the South, both for animal and human consumption. Over time I have come to believe that cornbread makes us stop and remember what we have and where we came from. It harkens to our “roots.” Pones of cornbread prepared in cast iron pans passed down from the generations before us and seasoned by the hands of angels no longer with us. Rich in flavor, yellow in color, this bread has been compared to the color of gold and thought to bring good fortune and wealth.

Every Southern supper (dinner to you Yanks) involves a protein and hogs were the cheap staple even if you ate “high on the hog.” Slaves, later freemen, and poor white farmers alike found ways to prepare lesser cuts, making them palatable to the point of being preferred.  Hog jowls or ham hocks are slowly cooked, the meat picked out before being added to collards and peas already cooked with salt pork. Spareribs slow cooked over a barbacoa, I’m salivating a bit.  One tradition says that a pig cannot turn its head, which means it’s always looking forward as we should be looking to the future.

How peas and collards culturally diffused to parts north and west is easy to understand and troubling for a progressive Southerner. The Great Migration was one of the largest movements of people in United States history. Six million Black people moved from the American South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states from the 1910s until the 1970s.

The driving force behind the mass movement was to escape racial violence, pursue economic and educational opportunities, and obtain freedom from the oppression of Jim Crow in my beloved South. With their migration they took their culture and their traditions and passed them on to other folk. Traditions that included black eye-peas and collards. Traditions that added vivid colors to the canvas of life in the United States.

I have been lucky, and blessed, if not rich…rich monetarily that is. My life has been filled with richness attributed to family and friends, acquaintances, and students I taught and coached. The people I have been lucky enough to run across in my seven decades on earth. I don’t know how much to attribute to eating black-eyed peas and collards, dumb luck, or a benevolent Supreme Being. What I most appreciate are the diverse traditions and the diverse people who make me smile and add richness to my own off-white canvas.

My hope for the New Year is that we all will celebrate a newfound prosperity, monetary or otherwise, good luck, good health, and peace. Peace from Covid, war, and peace in our own lives. I hope the New Year brings people together with understanding rather than forcing them apart with disinformation.

Happy New Years from the Foothills of the Blue Ridge. Enjoy your peas and collards.

Sources:

https://www.southernliving.com/holidays-occasions/new-years/new-years-traditions-black-eyed-peas

https://www.gastonoutside.com/post/collards-and-black-eyed-peas-the-history-of-new-year-s-day-food-and-where-to-find-it-in-gaston

https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/migrations/great-migration

https://www.allrecipes.com/article/how-to-cook-dried-beans/

And a lifetime living in the South.

Don Miller’s latest release is “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes,” a collection of short stories and essays on life in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. It can be purchased in paperback or downloaded at https://www.amazon.com/Pig-Trails-Rabbit-Holes-Southerner/dp/B09GQSNYL2/ref=sr_1_1?crid=FXC3AISNRIU7&keywords=pig+trails+and+rabbit+holes&qid=1640701551&s=books&sprefix=Pig+trails+an%2Cstripbooks%2C299&sr=1-1

From “the Rooter to the Tooter”

Sorry.  The year is only three hours or so old and I am entering it like a derailing steam locomotive.  I have completely run off the rails.  It’s three-thirty in the morning, do you know where your mind is?  I don’t.  I apologize for rambling.

I’ve got food on my mind while researching how a Southern community might have survived in the days following the Civil War and Reconstruction.  I was led down a pig trail by an article on “Southern Poverty Food, How the Other 90% Ate.”1   The article brought back childhood memories of my most favorite subject, food and the diversity of the people who created it.

I never thought about growing up poor but understand being in the “Other 90%”.  We certainly weren’t rich and compared to the rest of the families living along the Charlotte-Lancaster Highway, we all were in the same boat…a boat full of the rural working class.

While never having everything I wished for, I certainly had everything I needed.  I was surrounded by family and there were always vittles on the table.  The food certainly wasn’t filet mignon and caviar, but I never thought of it as “Poverty Food”.

“You chaps go on out an get me a mess of greens,” echoes brightly in my head.  I ate a bunch of greens, and then some, through those first two decades of life; mustard, turnip, collards.  Like green beans in the summer, there was usually a mess of greens warming on my grandmother’s stove in the winter.  She never threw any away, she just added to the pot liquor that might have been fermenting for weeks it seems.  Sometimes I thought, “If I have to eat one more bite of turnip greens….”  But I ate it anyway or went hungry.

Cooked in the renderings of fried, salt pork, what we call fatback, greens were seasoned with a bit of this and a bit of that.  Maybe some vinegar, hot sauce or left-over bacon or ham.  It was always accompanied by cornbread and a glass of tart buttermilk. One had to have something to sop up the pot liquor.

If we were eating “high on the hog,” the garden’s bounty was accompanied by a cut of meat, usually pork.  The greens might be served with the fried fatback itself, salty and crunchy between two pieces of cornbread or short ribs slow cooked in the Dutch oven.

Pigs were important to Southern Poverty Food it seems…thankfully.  High on the hog….  Pigs were always one of the mainstays of Southern cuisine.  Easy to raise, with eight to twelve in a litter.  Left alone they would “root hog or die” and even a blind one “will find an acorn if they root hog hard enough.”

Recognizable cuts were usually breaded and fried or roasted over open fires or above hardwood coals.  Sometimes, on special or large celebrations, whole hogs were buried in a deep hole filled with hardwood, then covered with wet burlap bags and left to slow cook all day.  Thinking of it has triggered a Pavlovian reaction.

Unrecognizable portions were turned into sausage, liver mush, hash, or head cheese…which is not cheese at all.  There was also fresh bacon to serve with brains and eggs the first morning after a hog was slaughtered.

Slow cookin’ over glowing embers was something we picked up from indigenous folk before we uprooted them and marched them west to the “Indian Lands”.  Something else we picked up was using the hog “from rooter to the tooter” but not from the Native Americans.  From pig’s snouts to chitlins’, loin to pig’s feet, little was wasted.  We picked that habit from folks bought, paid for, and shipped from another continent.  People who weren’t allowed to eat “high off the hog” during earlier times.

Pigs were not indigenous to North America, either.  Interestingly, I was “today old” when I discovered the infamous explorer, Hernando de Soto, brought the first pigs to North America.  Thirteen originally, they must be prodigious breeders if the wild hogs in our area are an indication.  I was a history major and teacher, shouldn’t I have known that?  I wasn’t paying attention that day or I did know it and forgot it.

The Spanish invaders saw Taino Indians of the West Indies cooking meat and fish over a pit of coals on a framework of green wooden sticks. The Spanish spelling of the Indian name for that framework was “barbacoa”.  A tradition and a name were born.

I wonder why my own Southern “rearing” had so much in common with the people of color or Native Americans that lived in nearby enclaves.  Enclaves created by the enforced segregation of the period.  I remember the wariness and fear that undercut the period and the relationships, the period of hard fighting for Civil Rights.

Our food was the same…just not seasoned as well.

There were a few people of color who lived in old sharecropper shanties in the area of my childhood and many Native Americans who had adopted the same names as my Scots Irish forefathers, intermarrying and moving to a place named “Indian Land”, just south of “Indian Trail”, west of “the Waxhaws” and east of the Catawba River.  What is in a name?

Regardless of race, creed, or color, we all shared the same love affair for slow-cooked pork, and the creative use of “certain” pig parts.  Served with a wedge of cornbread, red-hulled peas with onion and the “greens de jour.”  When I say we, I am speaking of the family I grew up with, in the area I grew up in although it seems Neo-Southern cuisine has caught on again, both above and west of the Mason-Dixon.  A “new” cuisine that features greens and pork extensively.

I have drawn a line.  I draw it just before the tooter in “from rooter to the tooter.”  I shouldn’t limit myself, but I have not participated in a chitlin strut or dined on the porcine version of Mountain Oysters, sometimes called “pig fries”.  I probably won’t…although I can’t guarantee what might have been in the barbeque hash served over white rice…don’t know what’s in it, don’t care what’s in it…um, um, good…as are pig knuckles, brains, and eggs, and liver mush.   Okay, I should rethink the chitlins and pig fries.  Nothing ventured…a New Year’s resolution?

By the time you read this, it will be New Year’s Day.  The tradition of serving collard greens and black-eyed peas will be observed in my little piece of heaven…a tradition I have not varied from ever during my lifetime.  A superstitious fear.  Peas for luck and collards for money.  Not that I have vast amounts of luck or money, I’ m just afraid I will lose what little I have.

The meal will be seasoned with pig renderings, a dash of vinegar and hot sauce.  Pork chops and cornbread will accompany but they won’t be the main course.  Greens and black-eyed peas are the stars on this day.

May your next New Year be everything you want…or at least everything you need.

From The Cook’s Cook: Southern Poverty Food: How the Other 90% Ate,  May 2018,  https://thecookscook.com/features/southern-poverty-food-how-the-other-90-ate/

The Image was lifted from Wikipedia with malice and forethought.

For further readings about any subjects under the sun, go to https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM