Black eyed peas are lucky legumes

What are you doing on New Years Eve? If you’re like a lot of people across Philadelphia, you’ll be cooking or eating black eyed peas.

These small, pinky beige beans with a dotted eye are eaten for good luck. Call it tradition, call it superstition, but the idea of eating black eyed peas at the start of the new year for good luck and prosperity has been around for a long time.

Lauren Swann is a nutritionist who studies food-ways –  how culture and ethnic heritage influence what we eat.  She said that historians have traced the emergence of black eyed peas back to enslaved West Africans.  “Black eyed peas originated from Africa and they are believed to have been brought to this country with the slave trade.” 

Because the climate in the American South was similar to sub-Saharan Africa the crops flourished.  Swann added that the beans were high in protein and fiber, and an inexpensive crop. They could be used in a variety of dishes, often combined with rice, which was a staple of southern households, “and now they are just considered a southern soul food”.

Black eyed peas on new years eve are a very common tradition in African American households”, said Swann.  The cooking and eating of the peas can be a yearly event, a food tradition that draws people together at the holidays.

But the good luck part is a mystery.  No one is sure how the eating on New Year tradition started, or why the black eyed pea became a talisman of good luck.  Some believe that they represent coins and prosperity.  But if you take a good look at one you might not be convinced.

Valerie Erwin, chef and owner of Geechee Girl Rice Café in Mt. Airy grew up with the tradition. “At New Year my mother would always make Hoppin’ John, where you cook black eyed peas with rice. I wouldn’t say my mother was a big traditionalist but that was one of the things she always did”.

Erwin serves black eyed peas every day and her neo-soul restaurant takes them to an entirely new level. “We serve a lot of black eyed peas. We have them on the menu everyday. We make a hummus, we make what we call crispy hoppin’ john, we make an African fritter.  We use them a lot.”

On New Years Eve at Geechee Girl Café they offer a prix fixe menu and everyone gets a little appetizer featuring black eyed peas. “That way everybody can have good luck”, explained Erwin.

Like having a rabbit’s foot or a four leaf clover, not knowing exactly why black eyed peas are lucky doesn’t stop people from believing. But will they bring you luck, love and prosperity?  Try some and see.  Click here for recipes from Geechee Girl Rice Cafe.

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