On New Year’s Day, people around the world prepare for a fresh start. For Southerners, starting 2014 off right begins with a full stomach… but not just any meal will do.
According to Southern legend, a proper New Year’s meal includes healthy servings of greens, black-eyed peas, pork and cornbread — all of which are believed to bring luck in the coming year. Some folklorists believe the tradition dates back to the Civil War, when Southern troops had only greens and peas to survive on after Union soldiers destroyed their land. Once soldiers left the area, Southerners gathered the remaining crops and celebrated the hope of good things to come with a meal.
Some say greens represent dollars and peas represent coins, while cornbread symbolizes gold and pork signifies progress in the coming year. However, superstition varies among those who prepare the meal and those who eat it.
Blount County’s Stephanie Miller cooks greens, peas, rice, ham and cornbread for her farm family. It’s a tradition she grew up with and one she still enjoys.
“Growing up, Grandmother Gilmer always fixed the New Year’s meal for us. Now that I have a family, I fix it and invite my parents and in-laws to eat,” said Miller, whose husband, Lance, is a member of the Federation’s State Young Farmers Committee. “I’ve always heard [you’re supposed to cook] greens for green back, rice for riches, peas for peace, cornbread for luck and ham just because it tastes good. If I’m feeling extra Southern, I may throw in a hog jowl or some fatback. Cooking is a way I can carry on our family’s history.”
In south Alabama, Jean Fontaine of Baldwin County serves black-eyed peas at her New Year’s table, but she found a way to put a scrumptious spin on the classic dish a few years ago.
“Back in 2002, a good friend of mine gave me a cookbook from her church,” she recalled. “I’d eaten black-eyed pea soup before, but I could never track down a recipe to make it. Wouldn’t you know, that recipe was in this cookbook!”
Fontaine said at first, she made the soup per the recipe’s instructions. But, like most Southern cooks, she’s made it her own over the years. The recipe is good any time it’s cold out and is a perfect fit for the first day of a new year, she said.
“After the holidays, sometimes you want something to make that doesn’t take much time but is still just as delicious, and this soup fits the bill,” she said. “It’s also good for people who have leftover peas from their New Year’s menus. To really bring out the flavors, I add some fresh vegetables that I canned over the summer.”
While she enjoys the traditional Southern feast of fried chicken, string beans, fresh turnips, peas and cornbread, Fontaine said she doesn’t cook for luck.
“I’m so blessed to have grown up watching Mom cook hearty meals this time of year, and I remember her each time I cook,” she said. “To me, the first meal of a new year is about sharing warm memories and love with family. That time together is all I need to start my year off right.”
Recipes in this issue feature New Year’s staples and a few twists on classic dishes.