The Southern New Year’s Day Meal
By Jessica Azar
Holidays in the South usually have well-known food-related traditions, and New Year’s Day is certainly no exception. Southerners know better than to start off the year on the wrong foot, so you’d better believe they’ve got the standard Southern New Year’s meal of black-eyed peas, greens, and pork (more specifically, hog jowls) cooking on the stove. This humble yet delicious menu has also become synonymous with New Year’s Day in places outside the South, and for the most part people have no clue why they feel compelled to scarf down copious amounts of soul-food every year on the First of January. The roots of the traditional fare becomes much more meaningful when you examine them, so let’s take a look at what we’re eating before we actually eat it.
Black-Eyed Peas: There are several well-defended explanations for the inclusion of this noteworthy legume, and most of them are tied to the Civil War (or War Between the States) Era in the South. As a plentiful crop, they were considered to be food for the animals, so when the Union army ravaged the farms of the South, taking everything they thought to be of value with them, they left Black Eyed Peas behind. Southerners considered it good fortune that they had a healthy amount of these with which to survive the winter. It’s also said that celebrating with Black Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day can be linked to Emancipation Day, by where all slaves in the South were freed on January 1st, 1863. Being that there wasn’t much else around food-wise to eat while celebrating their newfound freedom, it’s thought that former slaves came to associate their liberation with this delicious staple. Whatever the true origin of eating Black Eyed Peas may be, be sure to eat 365 of them: one for every day of the year.
Greens: Like Black Eyes Peas, Collard, Mustard, and Turnip greens are hearty winter crops in the South, so it makes sense to include them in winter celebratory festivities! Their green, leafy goodness (be sure to get rid of the stalks and stems though, yuck) stands for the color of new beginnings and….money. Yep, good ole greenbacks are heavily associated with eating Greens on New Year’s Day. We all want more dollars in the bank, don’t we?! I know I do, so you’d better believe I’ll be simmering a pot of turnip greens to welcome in the New Year.
Hog Jawls: Pigs are considered to be good luck for a variety of reasons, and undoubtedly eating pork on New Year’s Day is rooted in many of them. Consider that pigs cannot turn their heads to see backwards; they must turn completely around to do so, which makes them the perfect icon for not looking back on what’s already ended. They root forward when they eat, and moving forward is kind of a big part of new beginnings, so eating pork is considered lucky while eating beef from cattle (who eat while standing still) or eating poultry (which scratch backwards to find their food) is considered bad luck. No clue what hog jawls are or why on Earth someone would choose to eat something that sounds so icky? Let me explain. Hog jawls are the “cheek” of a pig, and when cured it’s a lot like a thick bacon. A large pig provided enough meat for one family to eat for an entire winter, and no part went to waste. What couldn’t be eaten at slaughter-time was cured and smoked with salt to keep it from ruining, enabling the family to enjoy its delicious nutrition all winter long. The ability to survive through a tough, cruel time of year is good luck, wouldn’t you say?
Cornbread: The beautifully-bright yellow of this Southern favorite reminds us of gold, and that we would REALLY like to attract wealth in the New Year so we can have lots of it. Okay, fine, I won’t be greedy, a nice pair of gold earrings will do the trick for me, but I’m betting some Southern Belles would like to attract the golden ring that comes with wedding bells this year, so don’t be surprised if you see your cousin Sally snacking on cornbread all day long this January 1st.
While there may not be concrete evidence that eating our traditional Southern New Year’s favorites will ensure prosperity, gold, or cold hard cash showing up on our doorstep, don’t deprive yourself of deliciously-comforting soul food on New Year’s Day (or for that matter, ANY day of the year). Make your family a pot of Hoppin’ John (black eyed peas and rice) and enjoy the leftovers for a few days. Just think, if eating this amazingness one day out of the year gives you good luck, there’s no telling what a three days of it will do! If nothing else, you’ll save money and have a full belly.