Until I attended college in Virginia, I was not aware of the southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck and prosperity. And although I’ve lived in the state since my university days, it was only recently that I finally tasted black-eyed peas. I wish I hadn’t waited so long.
The day after I put my very first black-eyed pea into my mouth, a fairly large check arrived in the mail. Wow. Was the traditional lore true? The check I received was not the result of winning a lottery or anything of that sort. It was from a friend whom I had assisted in his time of need many years before. He didn’t have the money to pay his real estate taxes, so I had given it to him.
Because I had not asked for the money back, I was quite surprised to find this unexpected check in my mailbox more than 10 years later. Was it just coincidence that the check arrived the very day after I’d eaten black-eyed peas? Maybe it wasn’t. The seemingly black-eyed pea-induced good fortune continued as my hubby and I ate our way through the rest of the recipe I’d made.
Every day following a supper that included black-eyed peas, something monetary in nature would occur, such as hearing from an editor wanting to purchase an article I’d written or someone wanting to buy my book. I even got free money—I kid you not. A retail store e-mailed me a coupon for $10.00 worth of goods and a grocery store awarded me a $10.00 gift card—even though I rarely shop at these particular stores.
Let me tell you, I didn’t want to stop eating those legumes! Therefore I tried several recipes in a row and came up with my own recipe for a good-luck relish. Should you decide to try it, please note: Past performance does not guarantee future results.
The most common explanation for why black-eyed peas are said in the South to be associated with good luck is that these legumes were about the only food Union soldiers left behind during the Civil War. Apparently the Yankees considered the dried beans to be cow food, and indeed, another name for black-eyed peas is cowpeas.
Southern soldiers felt lucky that they possessed black-eyed peas to keep them alive on New Year’s Day, and so the bean took on the quality of a good luck charm for the new year.
Another explanation I’ve seen offered has to do with the usefulness of leguminous plants—such as black-eyed peas—to farmers in the 1800s.
Legumes, thanks to symbiotic bacteria on their roots, can grow on poor (infertile) soils that are lacking the form of nitrogen that is vital for vigorous plant growth. The bacteria transform nitrogen from air trapped within the soil to a chemical form that the roots can absorb.
When a farmer’s crop of black-eyed pea plants died, they left behind nitrogen (fertilizer) in the ground that allowed farmers to successfully grow a different crop the following year in that area. This quality of black-eyed peas was especially important before commercial fertilizers became available.
Some farmers grew lots of black-eyed peas because they could be stored for a long time when dried and thus provide food for the cold months of the year. These folks would still be eating black-eyed peas on January 1.
They eventually noticed the connection between eating the peas on New Year’s Day and obtaining a good crop of any kind that year. The farmers didn’t need a scientific explanation for this; it was sufficient to believe that the consumption of black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day would bring good fortune in the days ahead.
Several accounts mention that the swelling of the dried beans as they are cooking foretells an increase in wealth over time and other folks talk about the beans themselves representing coins. Whatever the explanations given for the linking of black-eyed peas to future prosperity in one’s life, I wish you good luck of every kind in this new year.