Southern tradition of black-eyed peas on New Year's Day dates back to Civil War

Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Day will find most Arkansans eating at least one serving of black-eyed peas, if for no other reason than for "good luck." Many Southerners believe that each pea eaten on New Year's Day represents one day of good luck during the coming year.

How did the association of black-eyed peas with luck begin?

Black-eyed peas are thought to have originated in North Africa where they have been eaten for centuries. Eventually the peas were brought to the West Indies and made their way to the southern United States in 1674 by way of the slave trade. They were a staple in the diet of American slaves.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers, following the scorched-earth policy on their march through the South from Atlanta to Savannah, Ga., destroyed all crops such as cotton, tomatoes and potatoes, in part, because they were a staple of the diet of slaves, but black-eyed peas were overlooked.

Southerners -- slave owners, commoners and former slaves -- turned to black-eyed peas for survival. The legend that eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day brought good luck came from this period of American history. As Southerners migrated to other parts of the country, the legend spread. And it may spread even further as researchers working for NASA have produced black-eyed peas under conditions that astronauts can replicate in a space vehicle or a lunar or Martian greenhouse.

"Excluding luck, black-eyed peas are good for us," says Dr. Therthenia Lewis, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist. They are a good source of calcium, folate, Vitamin A and fit into any diet because they are low in fat and sodium and cholesterol free, says Dr. Lewis. Vitamin A serves many functions. It helps regulate the immune system to fight infections, and it helps to form and maintain healthy teeth, skin and tissue. Vitamin A also helps produce pigments in the retina and promotes healthy vision. Calcium is an important mineral as it helps blood vessels and muscles function by sending messages through the nervous system.

Peas are part of the meat and alternative food group in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid. One half cup of cooked legumes (black-eyed peas, beans or lentils) provides 2.61 grams of protein or as much as 2 to 3 ounces of red meat, says Dr. Lewis.

Black-eyed peas are sold dried, canned, fresh or frozen. To enjoy the Southern tradition of eating peas on New Year's Day, try this tasty, simple recipe.

Black-eyed Peas Creole

2 slices of bacon or Canadian bacon

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped bell pepper

1 cup chopped celery

1 20 oz. can tomatoes

1 Tablespoon sugar

teaspoon basil

1 large bay leaf

Salt and pepper to taste

1 Tablespoons olive oil, if desired

2 16 oz. packages frozen black-eyed peas

Cook bacon; remove from drippings and drain. Brown onion, bell pepper and celery. Add crumbled bacon and tomatoes, sugar, bay leaf, sweet basil, salt and pepper. Simmer 5 minutes.

Without thawing, add frozen black-eyed peas. Cook slowly 1 to 2 hours, adding water when necessary. Yield: 8 servings.

To make the above recipe more healthful and heart healthy, Dr. Lewis recommends substituting Canadian bacon for regular bacon and browning the onion, celery and bell pepper in olive oil, if necessary.

Here's another heart healthy way to eat black-eyed peas.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad with Basil Dressing

3 cups cooked black-eyed peas

teaspoon salt

cup finely chopped onion

cup finely chopped celery

1 small sweet red bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped

Basil Dressing

cup cider vinegar

3 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil, or 1 teaspoon dried

2 to 3 medium cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoons sugar

teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

teaspoon salt

1 cup olive oil

Fresh basil or parsley

for garnish

In a serving bowl combine black-eye peas, teaspoon salt, chopped onion, celery and red bell pepper. Set aside.

In a small bowl or other container, whisk together the vinegar, basil, garlic, sugar, remaining teaspoon salt and pepper. Gradually whisk in the oil until the dressing is well blended. You can use a blender for this step, if desired.

In a medium size bowl, combine black-eye peas, chopped onion, celery, bell pepper and basil dressing. Cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 2 hours or overnight. Serve with a garnish of fresh parsley or basil, if desired. Yield: 6 servings.

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