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No New Year's celebration is complete without black-eyed peas

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Many Southerners will tell you that no New Year's celebration is complete without black-eyed peas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERGIE: (Singing) Let's get it started in here.

GURA: No, not those Black Eyed Peas. I'm talking about the kind you soak overnight, then slow cook the next day with smoked ham hocks, tender bits of bacon, fresh celery, a pinch of cayenne pepper, all the good stuff. Soul food historian Adrian Miller joins us now to talk about its cultural significance and some new takes on the classic recipe. Welcome to the program, Adrian.

ADRIAN MILLER: Good to be with you. Happy New Year.

GURA: Happy New Year to you. First things first, are you going to be cooking peas this year, and what's in your pot?

MILLER: Oh, most definitely. So I've got some black-eyed peas that I cook until they're tender. And I like to get that nice, creamy gravy going when the starches come out. And then I also add some onion, some garlic and red pepper flakes. And then maybe add some time and throw in a bay leaf.

GURA: What's the secret to getting it right? Is it slow-cooking it? Is it cooking at a low heat over time? What's your secret?

MILLER: Oh, definitely slow-cooking it. But my late mother taught me a trick where if you boil them for five minutes before you cook them, it actually lessens the cooking time so you can get them tender faster.

GURA: They've come to symbolize good luck, and I wonder where that came from. How did this tradition of eating them on New Year's come about?

MILLER: Yeah, so this is an example of a culinary and cultural mash-up that happens in the American South. So you've got European immigrants that come with this belief that whatever you do on the first day of the year reverberates throughout the entire year. And also in parts of Europe, they had this thing called the first-footer tradition. So it's the idea that a dark-haired, dark complexion, dark-eyed person should be the very first visitor you get on New Year's Day in order to bring luck. So this is a case where blondes do not have more fun.

GURA: (Laughter).

MILLER: And then also you've got enslaved West Africans bringing their black-eyed peas into the mix, which was a culinary staple, but also eaten on auspicious days. So what I think happened is somewhere along the line, someone said, hey, we don't have to have a dark person. We can just eat these dark-eyed peas, and that can be the substitute for good luck.

GURA: When did it really catch on? When did it become something that was done and enjoyed throughout the south and indeed just throughout the whole diaspora?

MILLER: Well, you know, it's not documented very well, but it certainly was in full force by the 19th century, especially after the Civil War. That's where you start to see more cookbooks and more newspapers in the American South mentioning this. And this is something that all Southerners do. So it's not just African American. Certainly white southerners were doing the same thing, embraced this tradition.

GURA: I grew up in North Carolina, and I remember there were ways to hedge your bets. Yes, these were supposed to bring good luck, but you could have cornbread. I think that was supposed to symbolize gold. You could have collard greens. That was meant to symbolize dollar bills. There's a way to get a fuller plate and, as I say, hedge your bets, isn't there?

MILLER: Oh, absolutely. So if you want to have the full meal, you know, you have the black-eyed peas for good luck or coins. And like you said, you have the greens for folding money. And they could be collards or kale. I do mustard and turnip because I like the peppery mustard greens. I like the earthy taste of turnip greens. And then you can also do cabbage in some places. And then you do pork for good health. And it could be any kind of pork. Now, my family does chitlins, and I know that's a hard sell for a lot of people.

GURA: (Laughter).

MILLER: And for the uninitiated, chitlins are pig intestines. You can have either them stewed or fried. We stew them. But, you know, ham or any kind of pork - and then, like you said, you get your colors, right? You have yellow cornbread for gold. You have orange, which is candied yams, cooked in this really syrupy sauce of butter, brown sugar and cinnamon, and then a red drink to represent the blood shed by ancestors. And so that's the way to round out the whole meal.

GURA: Why do you think this tradition has endured for so long?

MILLER: Well, I think for people like me - you know, I'm someone who did not grow in the south, but I have southern parents. So it's a way to connect me to my southern roots and also to my ancestors. And also, you know, it's good to look into the new year with a sense of hope. And we've been through a lot with the pandemic and all these other things, so I like to be hopeful. And I think the third and most promising explanation is that it's just delicious. I mean, this is good stuff to eat.

GURA: Adrian, want to ask you, lastly, are there any new twists on these traditional recipes that have made their way into the culture today? How is it changing as we move here into 2022?

MILLER: Well, the first thing I want to mention is this kind of an old standard, but adding rice to a black-eyed peas dish - you call it Hoppin' John. So there are a lot of people in the South that do that. Also, there's something called Cowboy Caviar. So imagine black-eyed peas with corn and other fresh vegetables kind of almost like a relish, but it's a nice, cool salad to serve. You've also got people that are making black-eyed pea hummus, so kind of a Middle Eastern twist. And then some are going back to its West African roots and creating fritters. And that's what more enslaved West Africans were used to several centuries ago, and it's still enjoyed to this day. So getting a more international vibe are certain ways you can do it now.

GURA: Adrian Miller is a soul food historian. Thank you very much, and Happy New Year.

MILLER: Happy New Year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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