The transition to a New Year is a time for hope in a rosy future — a future assured by resolutions often made under the influence of alcohol (or subsequent hangover). Not surprisingly, such lofty intentions are generally abandoned by January third. Nonetheless, certain New Year’s traditions are strictly observed, at least in our house.
That’s because many of our ancestors lived in the south, a region rich in tradition and superstition. Much of the food that defined them as southerners comes from black culture (even worse — if they only knew it — much of that cookery came from Islamic culinary traditions).
Once, back in the sixties, my Texan grandfather was puzzled by something he’d heard about. He asked my father, “What’s this stuff they’re callin’ ‘soul food?’”
My father explained that it was cornbread, peas (meaning black-eyed peas, not the “english peas” that Yankees ate), collards, fried chicken, barbecue, etc.
Granddad cogitated for a bit, then responded, “Wha’ hay-ell… ah bin eatin’ soul food ahl ma’ lahfe!”
Every January first, southerners make sure to eat a certain dish that was believed to bring prosperity in the New Year. Hoppin’ John, a kind of pilaf of black-eyed peas and rice, symbolized the change that would jingle in the pockets of those who ate it on New Year’s Day. A mess of accompanying slow-cooked greens (collards, mustard, or — my favorite — turnip greens) signified “foldin’ money.”
Collards have large, tough leaves that call for slow cooking — like kale (not surprising, since they are actually an uncurly form of kale). Like Hoppin’ John, eating collards, or other pot-herbs, is a tradition that goes back to Africa. Efo is the generic African term for all edible green leaves cooked that way, even the leaves of baobab and banana trees. Collards and kale also have the advantage of being easily grown, and being tolerant of cold (they even taste better after being hit by frost) — which means they’re one of the few vegetables available, fresh, on New Year’s Day.
On our table, the accompanying turnip greens —slowly wilted in rendered salt-pork or bacon fat — are sprinkled with “pepper sauce,” the vinegar from a bottle of pickled hot peppers. The flavorful, and vitamin-rich, liquid released from the greens, called “pot likker,” is never wasted — corn bread sops it up.
One can’t have too much “long green.” So far, this superstition’s efficacy has not been confirmed by the delivery of very much cash to our household —but we’re not about to take any chances.
Here’s a recipe for Hoppin’ John that celebrates another southern staple — pork — that would have horrified the Muslim originators of the dish:
“Take a handful of cow peas (small black-eyed peas) that have been soaked over night, one onion, parsley and a laurel leaf. Let them boil in a quart and a pint of water for an hour, or until soft. Add two cupfuls well washed raw rice. The rice must cook fifteen or twenty minutes. Then add a quarter pound of well-fried sausages, a slice of ham and a small piece of bacon, both cut in pieces and fried. Put your saucepan aside to soak, or dry. Cover closely. Be careful it does not burn at the bottom. If the rice has to be stirred use a fork, as it turns easily, and still can not be stirred too much, or it becomes soggy. Those old-fashioned black pots are the best to use.” (Eustis, Célestine. Cooking in Old Creole Days, 1904)
Portions of this article appeared, in different form, at Leites Culinaria.
Hess, Karen. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection. University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: A History of Preserved Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us