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

Hope

My holiday wish is hope.

“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”  ― Shel Silverstein

***

Humanity is capable of such good.  Humanity is capable of flight, capable of putting people on the moon and returning them home again.  We can be so amazing.

I hope we can find our amazing light and shine it throughout the Universe.

Music, art of all types, the application of human creative skill and imagination…mathmatics, science,..we’re problem solvers.

I hope we put our collective minds together, solving more world problems, making life better for all.

Amazing breakthroughs in medicine, evolution in technologies.  Testaments to what humans can do when they embrace a positive goal. 

It is my hope we come together and embrace each other and find a positive goal.

So many people in need.  In a world with so much plenty, so much wasted with so many hurting for necessities.  In a world with so much opulence and wealth, we have people starving or lacking for clean water.  This is despite the verse, “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”

I hope we invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind to our table.

I have hope we will see the light and channel our amazing abilities toward ending those pestilences that plague us…regardless of who “us” is.

My fondest hope is the “goodwill toward men” we traditionally embrace during the holiday season will continue into and through the new year.

I hope all a Happy Holiday and a Merry Christmas.

I hope all a warm and prosperous New Year.

More than anything I hope for peace and healing to all.

“Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”  ― Shel Silverstein

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The featured image is from the charity, Hope for the Holidays Program, https://charity.lovetoknow.com/Hope_for_the_Holidays

The nativity scene is from Trinity Store https://www.trinitystores.com/artwork/light-world-nativity

Santa Clause and Reindeer are from Pinterest.

OPTIMISM DESPITE SCIATICA AND 2016

I find it interesting, in a bad way, that I am finishing 2016 the same way I began it…limping to the finish line while battling sciatica. The pinching of the sciatic nerve because…well…WHO THE F@#$ KNOWS…all I did was reach across my body with my right arm to pick up a hammer. OKAY I GOT IT…sciatica is caused by work. Now I know how to cure it.

My particular brand of sciatica runs across my left ass cheek and down my left leg…in other words, it is the “royal pain in the ass” and for me a physical reminder of what a pain in the ass 2016 was…except on a personal level it really wasn’t that bad. I lost my favorite uncle and several friends, but I have a family and friends whom I love, food on the table, a roof over my head even though, in order to heat the rooms under that roof, it cost me an arm and a leg…and the sciatica triggered by spitting wood to begin the year of 2016. All and all I ain’t got it that bad…except for the sciatica and a tractor I want to set on fire…kinda like 2016.

I won’t miss 2016…unless 2017 is worse. Worse? 2016, the year of political witch hunts and the hatred that fed it, religious and racial divisiveness, war and rumors of more war, fake news or real news, defining who should have the right to marry and who is what gender along with arguments that will never give love a chance…STOP IT DON! JUST STOP IT!

Yes, at midnight December 31, if I am still awake, I will kiss my significant other passionately and, with great enthusiasm sing “Auld Lang Syne”, Robert Burns’ poem now set to the tune of a Scottish folk song. The reason I will sing enthusiastically are the words, “we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Despite the divisiveness and pain of 2016, I face 2017 with the renewed enthusiasm that “we’ll take a cup of kindness yet”, the kindness that was sorely absent in 2016. I am optimistic we will ALL reach across the gulfs that are our differences and find understanding. I am offering you “a cup of kindness yet” in hopes you will take it, along with a hand of mutual friendship, respect and mutual understanding. In other words, because Burns said it better than I ever could “And there’s a hand my trusty friend! And give me a hand o’ thine! And we’ll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.” For those of you who are saying, “that’s like world peace, it will never happen,” I say, “There has to be hope. Someone has to make the effort.”

Whether you are a “taste great” person or a “less filling” person, in 2017 I will raise a toast to you, even though I don’t drink lite beer ever. Here’s to you and yours with the hope you have a productive, prosperous and kind new year. May peace be with thee!