Cabbage and Black-Eyed Peas, Oh My! A New Year’s Tradition in the South

Photo Credit: Martin LeBar

New Year’s Day, coming up fast. Planning your menu, are you?

There’s a good reason to hesitate, to take your time, because there’s really 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, but they actually originated in North Africa, in what is now Morocco.

So why (and where) did this bean thing become popular in Charleston? After all, black-eyed peas are de rigueur in New Orleans, too, another place where France left a big shoe print, with the help of a lot of slaves and exiles from Haiti.

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.

Ever since, New Year’s Day has carried with it a whole truckload of fascinating historical ephemera.

It’s change (as in money) – and a universal human desire for luck – that drives many 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.)

And that’s cabbage and black-eyed peas, best cooked with a bit of smoked ham or bacon. Greens and smoked pork, or other meat, enjoyed a long tradition in Europe as well. We must not forget that. Cabbage most likely appeared in Britain in the fourteenth century.

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 – with the assistance of powerful Africans and Arabs only too willing to make a buck in selling off these unfortunate people – 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.

Cabbage red and green
Adobe Stock

Black-eyed peas came from Africa to Virginia in the 1600s, stashed in the holds of slavers’ ships bringing thousands of Africans to the New World to serve as labor for planters, and others (including free blacks) These peas, not really peas,  apparently didn’t really become a major crop until later, after the Revolutionary War. Some sources say that Thomas Jefferson, considered the first real American gourmet/foodie (but not entirely true), introduced black-eyed peas to the region around his Monticello estate, at least as a serious crop and ground cover, as well as food for both slaves and animals. 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 such as 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 from 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:

Adobe Stock

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.

© 2021 C. Bertelsen

10 thoughts on “Cabbage and Black-Eyed Peas, Oh My! A New Year’s Tradition in the South

  1. Such beautiful photos of cabbages reminded me of driving to work past fields of them in the 1970s, a little back road from Camden, Delaware, through Amish country to my HR job at Scott Paper. They smelled so good when growing but after picking (and beyond), not so much. I was not a big cabbage eater in my youth but today I love it. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked black-eyed peas. I’m a lentil girl. :) Thanks for your essay…and the memories. Happy New Year!

  2. This tradition is well known in Poland too. But we eat the pea with sour (fermented) cabbage so it tastes totally different, as you may guess. But it is yummy :)
    Merry Christmas, dear Cynthia and all the best for an upcoming New Year!

  3. I have read Karen Hess’s book, actually. It’s a really well done, with a lot of great research. I have to admit, though, that I’ve never had much luck trying to make rice by her recipes. I think the rice we have today is just too different from what the old traditional cooks were using.

  4. Yes, that’s true about the red “crowder” cowpeas. Thanks for sharing and I’m definitely going to have get myself one of those salt pigs you wrote about on your blog! And I’m going to have to find some of that Carolina Gold rice, too. I know this is probably a dumb question, but have you read Karen Hess’s book, “The Carolina Rice Kitchen?”

  5. This is a great post . . . I like the combination of history with recipes you can actually try. Here in Charleston, it’s sort of obligatory to have Hoppin’ John on New Years, but I think I might try mixing my peas with cabbage this year, too. The recipe looks delicious.

    Interestingly, the original Hoppin’ John uses not black-eyed peas but red cowpeas, a.k.a. “crowder peas.” Those used to be hard to find, but there are a few heirloom producers now who have brought dried red cowpeas back to market. If you’re able to get your hands on them, try them in Hoppin’ John with real Carolina Gold rice–it’s so rich and flavorful you almost don’t need to add any meat for flavoring (though, of course, I still do!)

  6. Hello!

    Interesting about the similarities in the Greek cooking methods! Thanks for sharing. Actually, in Africa, women put wild leafy greens in many of their stews, including a marvelous one that I will write about later, which also includes peanut butter. Unbelievably good.

  7. we are hot on a weekly bean dish in our house, and the garden is full of cabbage heads at the moment that are slowly unfurling. black-eyed bean soups are also a favorite in greece, and are often cooked with spinach and other wild winter or spring leafy greens. this is a wonderful recipe, and i think i will use it once the cabbages are done

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