Photo Credit: Martin LeBar

Yes, I know, you’re overwhelmed with preparations for Christmas. If you’re like me, you’re still trying to come up with THE menu that will knock Uncle Scrooge out of his foul grinchy mood.

So how come I’m looking at New Year’s foods already? There’s a good reason — there’s only one thing to eat that day. Black-eyed peas, a gift from a part of Africa ruled by the French for a long time. [They were there as early as 1659 at St. Louis, now present-day Senegal.]

So why (and where) did this bean thing become popular? After all, black-eyed peas are de rigueur in New Orleans, too, another place where France left a big shoe print.

When Julius Caesar opted for the Julian calendar in 46 BC, January 1 became the day for Western celebrations of the New Year and has stayed the same for 2000 years plus change.

New Year’s Day carries with it a whole truckload of fascinating historical ephemera.

It’s change (as in money) — and a universal human desire for luck — that drives a lot of New Year’s Day food preparations. But there’s also the hope that life will CHANGE. Eating food for strength, health, and wealth — an age-old phenomenon.

That’s why Hoppin’ John, or rice and black-eyed peas, appears on a lot of Southern plates on January 1, and on a lot of non-Southern plates as well.

Everybody needs a little bit of luck.

But there’s another dish, possibly with deep roots in Africa. An apocryphal story has it that cooks first developed this dish in Vicksburg, Virginia during the Civil War.  (Yes, there is a Vicksburg, Virginia, not just Mississippi. The place lies near the center of  Richmond, Virginia, and looks like it may have been a small, separate enclave during the Civil War.)


Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

And that’s cabbage and black-eyed peas, best cooked with a bit of smoked ham or bacon.

Now supposedly Northern troops thought the beans they saw in the field were field peas, in their minds only good for feeding livestock. The grateful Southerners “found” the beans and saved themselves from starvation.

Whatever the truth of the story, cabbage leaves represent paper greenbacks and black-eyed peas, long considered a lucky legume because of their association with coins — this combination recalls recipes from Africa, particularly West Africa because slavers wrenched most of the slaves away from that part of the world and shipped them to the Antebellum South. But as far back as the time of the pharaohs of Egypt, people believed that eating black-eyed peas would bring luck on certain auspicious days.

Black-Eyed Peas

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Black-eyed peas came from Africa to Virginia in the 1600s, but apparently didn’t really become a major crop until later, after the Revolutionary War. Some sources say that Thomas Jefferson, essentially the first real American gourmet/foodie, introduced black-eyed peas to the region around his Monticello estate, at least as a serious crop and ground cover. Interestingly enough, on August 28, 2009, scientists at the University of Virginia published an article in Science about their work with a botanical pest that destroys black-eyed pea plants, one that affects West Africa as well:

Striga gesnerioides (Photo Credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture)

The parasitic flowering plant Striga, or “witchweed,” attacks the roots of host plants, draining needed water and nutrients and leaving them unable to grow and produce any grains. Witchweed is endemic throughout sub-Saharan Africa, causing crop losses that surpass hundreds of millions of dollars annually and exacerbating food shortages in the region.

Combining cabbage (a type of green leafy vegetable) with beans likely grew out of the African culinary culture based on stews made with vegetables and bits of smoked fish or fermented condiments like dawadawa.

Take a look at a Senegalese recipe for black-eyed peas with cabbage (and other vegetables):

1/3 lb. black-eyed peas
¾ cup oil
2 pounds beef (or pork), cut into chunks
2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
2 Maggi cubes
½ head of green cabbage
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
1 lb. manioc, peeled and cut into chunks
1 t. dried thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Soak the black-eyed peas in cold water for two hours. Drain, refresh the water, and cook the beans for 30 minutes or until almost tender.

Meanwhile, brown the meat in the oil. When well browned, remove fromm the pan and fry the onion for 5 minutes until translucent, add the garlic and cook another minute. Add 6 cups of water, the beans, the vegetables, the herbs and salt and pepper. Cook until vegetables and beans are tender. Serve with rice. (From: Cuisine Sénégalese, by Joséphine N’Diaye Haas, Paris, 2004)

And here’s an American version:

Photo Credit: Marc Genre

Black-Eyed Peas with Cabbage
Serves 8

1 lb. dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
1 lb. smoked ham or bacon
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped green pepper
1 cup chopped celery
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 t. salt or to taste
½ t. pepper or to taste
1 t. dried oregano leaves, crushed
½ t. dried thyme leaves, crushed
1 10-oz. can tomatoes, ideally with chiles added
1 head green cabbage, cored, and cut into 8 – 10 wedges.

In large pot, bring 5 cups of water to a boil. Simmer peas for ½ hour.

If using bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces. Cook in large skillet until crisp. Drain on paper towels.

In about 2 T. bacon drippings or oil, fry onion, green pepper, and celery until vegetables have softened. Add garlic, seasonings, and tomatoes. Add ham or bacon at this point.

Simmer 20 minutes. Add to the peas. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until peas are tender, usually about an hour or so. Add the cabbage and cook until cabbage is tender but not falling apart, about 20-25 minutes.

Serve with cornbread or rice.

For more on the cowpea/black-eyed pea in Africa, see Ndiaga Cisse and Anthony Hall, “Traditional Cow-Pea in Senegal, A Case Study,” FAO.

© 2009, 2010 C. Bertelsen

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I am a cook who loves to write. And I am a writer who loves to cook.

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