Why Do We Celebrate New Year’s Eating Black-Eyed Peas and Collard Greens?

by Jon D. B.

Any Southerner worth their salt has had black-eyed peas, collard greens, and a bit of cornbread to celebrate New Year’s Day. But why these specific delights?

Cornbread may be a universally loved baked good, but beans and collard greens aren’t for everyone. I’ll be the loudest, however, to sing the praises of Southern greens ’til death. Few dishes personify a true southeast celebration like collards. Turnip greens, mustard greens, chard, and yes, even kale, make for an experience truer than hand-battered fried chicken.

And if you’re feeling creative, there are just as many ways to prep black-eyed peas to accompany them for a fine New Year’s Day feast. Yet this begs the question: why do we focus on these wildly specific dishes to ring in a new year? The answer is fascinating, and one that’s as deeply rooted in Southern tradition as traditions come.

For a clear-cut answer, the late, great Southern journalist John Egerton holds a mountain of telling research. His tome, Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History, might as well be the bible for southeast American cuisine.

Within, Egerton pinpoints black-eyed peas as a food directly associated with the “mythical power to bring good luck.” This is deeply rooted in African-American tradition, and it’s an association so powerful that it pre-dates even this by millennia.

When it comes to collard greens, well, the significance is in the name. Greens are green like money, Egerton cites; a straightforward route to ringing in a “financially prosperous” new year.

Black-Eyed Peas Have Been Associated with ‘Good Luck’ Around the Globe for Centuries

To get a deeper sense of why black-eyed peas are at the center of most New Year’s Day feasts, it’s important to know their origins. These little legumes are native to West Africa. This translated into Americana through the great tragedy of African diaspora. Millions of people were forced into slavery from the Western region of the Mother Continent, and both slaves and colonizers brought their foods and traditions with them.

The same is true of collared greens, which stem from another West African tradition: adding ham hock to greens for salting and flavor. But it’s the black-eyed pea that would take the world by storm.

According to Southern Living, the beans are found in many “luck-bringing” dishes as far back as 500 A.D. The tradition would spread to the Middle East, too, for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah during this time.

Eating black-eyed peas with rice for New Year’s Day, however, is West African in origin. It is this dish that would spread through the American South via slavery.

Complete the New Year’s Day ‘Holy Trinity’ with the ‘Gold’ of Cornbread

As for the third component, cornbread, the significance for New Year’s celebrations boils down to color, as well. Serving this golden dish represents gold itself and the prosperity it brings.

Some Southern traditions involve stewing black-eyed peas with tomatoes instead, and doing so symbolizes red-blooded health to all. And if you’ve found a penny inside your pot of peas at one point, don’t fret, no one’s trying to murder you. Instead, they’re bestowing luck on the one fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to find the coin in their New Year’s Day serving.

Whichever way you choose to celebrate, now you know. And a happy and prosperous New Year from all of us here at Outsider.