Black-eyed peas for the New Year

Black eyed peas prepared

While the precise date of New Year’s Day may vary across cultures, the sentiment is the same everywhere. The beginning of a brand new year calls for a fresh start, typically ushered in with grand hoopla seasoned with old traditions and a heaping dose of superstition.

Take the town of Stonehaven in Scotland, for example. On New Year’s Eve, droves of potentially – nay, likely – intoxicated men pack 16-pound bundles of whatever might burn with the right combination of slow smolder and leaping flame. At the stroke of midnight, the Stonehavenites set their combustible clumps aflame and commence a rowdy parade through the darkened streets. For a full quarter of an hour, the men swing their blazing fireballs wildly about their heads, the ultimate goal being to ward off evil spirits while avoiding setting oneself afire. This, it seems, is a very real possibility, as the town’s Web site wisely recommends that spectators “never wear [their] best clothes to the fireball ceremony as there will be sparks flying along with smoke – and even Whisky!”

As alcohol and pyrotechnics are always a volatile mix, it’s easy to imagine a sage group of housewives developing their own savory harbingers of good luck, the kind that just might lure the boys to lay down their flaming balls of tallow and step inside for a hot meal. Third-degree burns, after all, do not a happy New Year make.

This might have been the case with whoever began the tradition of consuming black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. In many Western cultures, eating the black-eyed pea – the edible seed of the cowpea – has long been thought to bring great fortune in the new year ahead. The black-eyed pea – neither pea nor bean, but rather a type of lentil – is a humble legume, largely ignored by classic haute cuisine. Escoffier, as far as I can tell, makes no mention of it in his Guide Culinaire amongst the mousselines of woodcock and the truffle timbales. It’s no wonder, after all: For many years, the deliciously nutty pea was used strictly as cattle feed. Ironically, its lowly status may have contributed to its reputation as a good-fortune bringer in the American South.

Black-eyed pea folklore (yes, there is such a thing) states that during the Civil War, Gen. Sherman’s troops planned to cripple the South by relieving the farmers of their crops and livestock. What they did not confiscate, they are said to have burned, with few exceptions. Miraculously – and rather foolishly on the part of Sherman – the modest black-eyed pea plants were mostly left untouched. Either they were mistaken for weeds, or – along with corn – considered to be simply cow chow. Whether out of desperation, or because they simply knew better, the Southerners sustained themselves with black-eyed peas throughout the winter, thus ensuring the sort of luck that surviving through hard times brings. As an added dose of fortune, the spent plants generated nitrogen for the soil, ensuring a healthy harvest for the following year.

While that story is appropriate for these parts, the black-eyed pea was seen as a talisman of good luck well before the time of the Civil War. It has been widely reported that the legume has been found in the tombs of Pharaohs and ancient kings. It was thought that eating the black-eyed pea – even then considered a food fit only for peasants – made one appear modest in the eyes of the heavens. For an overly extravagant king, a few black-eyed peas scattered here and there showed signs of humility, no matter how contrived.

No matter the reason for associating the black-eyed pea with good fortune, there’s no better way to greet the New Year than with a big bowl full of luck. The following is a traditional Indian recipe that has been well-received in my experience, even by those who claim that they aren’t fans of the black-eyed pea. Don’t forget to give your beans a good soak in time for the holiday!

[Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at catalyst@charter.net]

Punjabi Black-eyed peas:
Adapted from The Best 1000 Indian Recipes, edited by Wendy Hobson

Ingredients:
9 oz black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
12 cups water
1 large onion, chopped
6 tablespoons oil
2 cloves
4 peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1/2 inch cinnamon stick
1 black cardamom pod (or two green)
3 cloves garlic
1 inch ginger, grated
1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon ground cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
14 oz canned tomatoes
2/3 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup salt, plus more to taste
chopped cilantro for garnish

Drain soaked beans, then cover with water and salt. If the pot is not large enough, water can be added gradually. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, then simmer covered until tender (approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes).

Meanwhile, heat oil in heavy pan and sauté onion, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamom over medium heat until onion becomes translucent. Add garlic, ginger, cumin, turmeric and coriander and stir until just cooked through – do not allow garlic to singe. Add tomatoes, cayenne and garam masala. Cook at a simmer until much of the liquid has been absorbed. Stir in cooked, drained beans and yogurt and simmer on low until desired consistency is reached. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and enjoy the luck to come!

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