Cooking up a New Year Begins with Black-eyed Peas - No. 177
They bring sustenance, flavor, thrift, and tradition for a happy, healthy 2023!
THE SOUTHERN FOOD WRITER Bill Neal called black-eyed peas a "gastronomic insurance policy."
A bit superstitious, yes, but I don’t think knocking on wood, throwing salt over your shoulder, or carrying a lucky penny are nearly as delicious.
It doesn’t matter if you start with dried, frozen, or canned. What matters is that you just simmer up a pot, bake some cornbread, and chill the Champagne. The shelves were picked pretty clean when I did my holiday shopping last week, and I felt fortunate to snag four bags of frozen. Nevertheless, a new year is unfolding, and I wouldn’t miss a first meal of black-eyed peas and the good fortune they are thought to offer.
These pale spotted peas native to Africa found their way to the Caribbean and then to America on the ships with the enslaved. Here they were seasoned with local peppers and ham hock, stirred into steamed local rice, or spooned alongside cornbread and greens. On the plate, they earned their spot out of necessity because they were cheap and fed people. In the field, they grew alongside corn to add nitrogen back to the soil.
The late author Edna Lewis, native of Virginia, remembered the rows of black-eyed peas where she was raised. "We would store the dried pods in cotton sacks and then, on a cold winter afternoon when there was nothing better to do, we would shell the peas. First we would beat the sack on a table or the floor to break up the pods..."
Anne Byrn: Between the Layers is a reader-supported publication. To receive all the recipes and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Not just for New Year's
A pantry staple, we simmer black-eyed peas to spoon alongside grilled fish in the springtime. In the summer, we throw together a black-eyed pea salad to go with barbecued chicken or pork ribs. It goes something like this:
To every 4 cups of cooked black-eyed peas add: 1/2 cup each minced sweet onion and red bell peppers, 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley or cilantro or a mix of both, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Let this marinate in the fridge for several hours or overnight. It’s often called Texas Caviar.
Just last year Substack writer Emily Nunn of the Department of Salad shared her black-eyed pea salad with Between the Layers readers, and it’s a goodie.
While tradition says we cook the peas with ham hock, lately I’ve been simmering a nearly vegetarian version where you saute chopped onions, carrots, garlic, and peppers in olive oil, add your drained and soaked peas, and enough water, vegetable, or chicken stock to cover by an inch. Bring the peas and liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 1 to 2 hours, adjusting the seasoning with salt, pepper, and hot sauce toward the end.
But, let’s face it, black-eyed peas are most often cooked on New Year's. It's a cost-cutting way to feed a crowd coming over to watch football games, using up leftover Christmas ham, pairing with just about anything on the menu, and bringing with them the possibility of good luck.
How to make Hoppin’ John
By far, the pea and rice combination called Hoppin' John is the best known rendition of black-eyed peas. In her 1872 cookbook, Mrs. Hill's Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book, Annabella Hill offered this advice for the New Year's "Hoppin John:"
"Pick out all defective ones from a quart of dried peas; soak them several hours in tepid water; boil them with a chicken or piece of pickled pork until the peas are thoroughly done. In a separate stew-pan boil half as much rice dry; take the peas from the meat, mix them with the rice, fry a few minutes until dry. Season with pepper and salt."
Hoppin' John originated in the Caribbean where all sorts of pilau recipes of peas and rice began. According to author and historian Damon Lee Fowler of Virginia, the West African enslaved brought a love of mixing beans and rice to America. And it depended on where you lived and what peas were grown as to what pea went into Hoppin' John. Fowler, born in North Georgia but raised in South Carolina, recalls eating black-eyed peas alongside rice, but never mixed the two together. And Edna Lewis said the best pea to toss with cooked rice is not the black-eyed, but the little red pea. Black-eyed peas, she said, were too soft and fell apart.
Regardless, peas or beans mixed with rice or served alongside rice are a carryover of a longtime African tradition of cooking them on feast days to honor the gods. Edna Lewis preferred a meatless method of cooking them, first sautéing onion and garlic in olive oil, and then adding black-eyed peas, water, seasonings, and cooking until soft.
My tricks? I add a little chopped carrot to the saute. It makes the peas taste even sweeter. And I'll often cook them with chicken broth for a more velvety texture. If I’ve got leftover country ham from Christmas or some prosciutto, I’ll mince a half cup and toss it in for big-time umami. As for the rice? I prefer the long-grain Basmati, which keeps its shape once combined with the peas.
However you cook them and what you mix them with, black-eyed peas have history and add a little meaning to the New Year’s meal. And I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for 2023 to be filled with meaning, and health and happiness, and a wee bit of luck, too!
So Long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye 2022
I started this Substack newsletter in the spring of 2021 as a way to write something more substantial than quick posts on social media. Also to bridge differences, open up conversation, and let food bring us together. No coincidence this was in the middle of the Covid epidemic and a growing divide in America.
Reflecting on 2022, we still dealt with the uncertainty of Covid and also inflation and food supply chain disruptions. There were milestones this year like the death of beloved monarch Queen Elizabeth II, the demise of Twitter, not to forget in September the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade (1973), guaranteeing a constitutional right to abortion. (Some state constitutions, however, have independently protected abortion rights.)
And that’s not all. There was continued gun violence and tragic school shootings, and if I could link an assault weapons ban to a recipe or a food story, I would write about it. Because these needless guns are killing our children, tearing apart families, and instilling fear in our schools. (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, as well as the District of Columbia, have enacted laws that generally ban the sale, manufacture, and transfer of assault weapons.) Hopefully our legislators once back from holiday break will be able to bring back the ban in 2023. And lest we forget, Russia invaded Ukraine last February, and the brave Ukrainians are fighting for their lives and their freedom, reminding us all of how precarious our freedoms can be.
The war isn’t over, but 2022 is. And thank goodness, once again, for food to bring some comfort and joy. My favorite flavors this year were the dill and poppyseeds in Ukrainian recipes and those sour cherries I ordered from Michigan to bake into cobblers all summer. The chocolate pound cake recipe of memory became a reality, and I was able to resurrect it and share a sneak-peek with you. The chicken Scallopine we made for Father’s Day was so good. The no-churn ice cream taught me something new, and the collaborations with other Substack writers expanded my reach. In October I shared a much-loved white bean chili with Caroline Chambers over on her What to Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking.
For 2023, I look forward to cooking and baking with you. I can’t wait to winter with soups, stews, and comfy flavors the first part of the new year. I love the way the clear morning light blasts in the kitchen window without the leaves on the trees. It awakes me and inspires me to clean off the countertops after holiday excess and pull out recipes I want to revisit in a new way this year.
What do you want to read about in Between the Layers in 2023?
I appreciate your joining our conversation!
This year I awarded paid memberships to three free subscribers who had been active openers, readers, commenters, and expressed need. And those were made possible by three founding members who joined at the higher tier to make sure someone else has an opportunity to read all the posts as well.
That compassion wasn’t something I was aware of when I started this newsletter almost two years ago. It emerged. And so my toast for 2023 is to you, the reader.
Thank you & Happy New Year!
- xo, Anne
New Year's Day Black-eyed Peas
Before you cook, rinse the dried peas then soak overnight in cold water. If you forget the overnight soak, no worries, as you can bring a pot of water to a boil and pour boiling water over the peas and let them soak three hours, then drain, rinse, and start cooking. For frozen black-eyed peas, just thaw and begin. For canned, drain and rinse well. You need 6 cups fresh or canned peas for this recipe.
Makes 8 to 12 servings
Prep: Overnight or 3 hour-soaking for the peas
Cook: 1 1/2 to 2 hours
1 pound (2 full cups) dry black-eyed peas
5 to 6 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped carrots
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 fresh hot pepper, minced or 1 dried pepper, crumbled
1/2 cup chopped cooked ham or prosciutto
2 bay leaves
Enough water or chicken broth to cover the peas while cooking (about 6 cups)
Salt and pepper to taste
Cooked rice for serving
1. Place the peas in a colander and rinse with cold water, picking out any broken peas or debris. Place in a large bowl, and cover with cold water. Let rest at room temperature overnight. Or, if you are in a hurry, pour boiling water over the drained peas in the bowl. Pour enough water to cover the peas by 1 inch. Let rest at room temperature for 3 hours.
2. When ready to cook, drain the peas and set aside.
3. Place the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, garlic and hot pepper, and saute until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the ham or prosciutto and bay leaves. Toss to coat. Pull the pot off the heat, and add the drained peas and enough water or chicken broth to cover the peas by 1 inch. Stir and bring the peas to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pot.
4. Cook until the peas are tender, but not broken, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Be careful to not stir the peas a lot during cooking or they will break. Keep an eye on the water level of the pan. The peas should stay covered with liquid, and you do not want them swimming in water or to stick to the pan. So replenish with a little water or broth as needed until they are done. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, and serve with rice.
I appreciate your posts. Food related to everything. It's how we sustain and comfort ourselves and it's so important. For 2023, keep talking about everything. In some groups people like to shy away from difficult subjects and profess that we shouldn't "talk about politics". The subjects you brought up in your post - gun violence, war and the loss of the right for women to make their own decisions about their own bodies are all so important. We need to talk about them and everything else. Let's keep those conversations going as we also talk about food.
I'm 63 and I want to keep an open mind to the ideas and recipes of younger cooks and chefs. During the pandemic especially I found comfort in the old recipes and cookbooks from when I was a new cook in the 80's. I don't want to stay in the 80's anymore. I want to hear about new and fresh perspectives and be open to new ideas. It's so easy for people my age and older to moan about how things aren't the way they used to be. The time we're living now is the time of my children's young adulthood. I want to hear what that generation has to say and listen to their ideas with an open mind.
Happy New Year to you and I look forward to seeing where your newsletter goes in 2023.
I am one who takes superstitions seriously, too, and there are many that I do at Pie Cottage for New Years--opening doors and windows just before midnight to sweep the old year out and let the new year in, and a First Footing are just two. For New Year's Day I'll have a pot of peas to share with my loved ones, too. Thanks for all your words and recipes this year, Anne, and for generously sharing your newsletter with those who are in need -- something that I practice over on my newsletter, too.
Happy New Year to All!