Why do Southerners eat black-eyed peas and greens on New Year's Day?

beans and greens new year's food tile / Getty Images

Southern tradition holds that the first food to be eaten on New Year's Day should be black-eyed peas for luck and prosperity -- specifically, one pea for each day of the year. To really ensure a good year, add a mess o' greens for wealth.

Though nobody eats 365 peas in a sitting, who wants to tempt fate and pass on the peas? So the lowly legume is served up on Southern New Year's menus in a variety of dishes to satisfy every taste, ranging from spicy Texas caviar to chili-roasted peas for snacking to Hoppin' John.

Hoppin' John, a mix of peas, rice and pork, is served on New Year's Day; on Jan. 2, Hoppin' John becomes "Skippin' Jenny" because recycling the leftovers demonstrates frugality, according to Woman's Day magazine.

Black-eyed peas are a variety of the cowpea and part of the family of beans and peas. Even though it's myth that black-eyed peas bring good luck, it's fact they can benefit your health. Just one cup of black-eyed peas delivers 20 percent of the daily magnesium, calcium and iron one needs, plus they are a good source of soluble and insoluble fiber, according to the Mayo Clinic website.

New year food folk lore

* Eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day brings good luck in the new year. * For the best chance of luck every day in the new year, eat 365 black-eyed peas on New Year's Day. * When served with greens (collards, mustard or turnip), black-eyed peas represent coins and greens represent paper money. * Cornbread, often served with black-eyed peas and greens, represents gold. * Black-eyed peas eaten with stewed tomatoes represent wealth and health. * In Hoppin' John, each pea represents a coin, and a whole serving equals prosperity. Source: Various Internet sites

While not everyone will eat black-eyed peas on Jan. 1, a poll of Facebook readers found all seemed to have a New Year's food tradition of some type.

"My mom makes black-eyed peas every year for her daughters and granddaughters," says Brittany Golden of Hixson on the Times Free Press Facebook page.

"Black-eyed peas, turnip greens and fried hog jowl at my Momma's," says Tammie Stoker Shoemaker of Ringgold, Ga., about her New Year's tradition.

"I've always eaten pork, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes for New Year's Day," says Melinda Botterbusch, an employee of National Pen Corp who lives in Shelbyville, Tenn.

"This native of southern New Mexico prefers traditional Mexican dishes -- pozole, menudo, pork tamales -- as a New Year's feast, starting at midnight with tequila toasts," says Mark Carter of Cleveland, Tenn.

Following are four ways to try black-eyed peas, all from Southern Living. There's also a recipe for greens, one that will work whether they're collard, turnip or mustard greens.

Good Luck Greens and Peas with Ham

1 32-ounce container vegetable broth

1 16-ounce package frozen black-eyed peas, thawed

1 sweet onion, cut into eighths

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 5-pound smoked, fully cooked, semi-boneless ham

1 1-pound package shredded fresh collard greens

Place first five ingredients in a six-quart slow cooker. Stir together brown sugar and mustard; rub mixture over ham. Place ham in slow cooker. Cover and cook on high six to seven hours or until ham is tender.

Uncover and add collard greens. Cover and cook on high one hour or until tender. Slice ham, and serve with greens mixture.

photo Hoppin' John is one traditional New Year's Day dish.

Updated Black-Eyed Peas

1 16-ounce package frozen black-eyed peas

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup red pepper jelly

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 cup diced red bell pepper

1/3 cup diced red onion

2 large fresh peaches, peeled and diced

2 cups torn watercress

Prepare peas according to package directions, simmering only until al dente; drain and let cool one hour.

Whisk together cilantro and next six ingredients in large bowl. Add cooked black-eyed peas, bell pepper and onion, tossing to coat. Cover and chill eight hours. Stir peaches and watercress into pea mixture just before serving.

Texas Caviar

3 cans drained black-eye peas with chopped jalapeno peppers

1 purple onion, chopped

3 tomatoes, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 avocados, chopped

2 jalapeno peppers, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

1/2 bunch of cilantro, chopped

Zesty Italian salad dressing

Mix all ingredients and refrigerate overnight before serving. Make one day ahead.

Chili Roasted Black-Eyed Peas

2 15.8-ounce cans black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon pepper

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Transfer mixture to a lightly greased 17-by-12-inch jellyroll pan. Bake 45-50 minutes, or until crispy and dry, stirring every 10 minutes. Let cool 20 minutes.

photo Add strips of bacon to your collard greens for an extra flavor boost.

Greens (Collard, Turnip or Mustard)

2 bunches (about 5 pounds) fresh greens

6 strips of bacon, diced

1 large onion, peeled and diced

1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon salt

1 piece of medium salt pork

Remove the tougher, woody stalks from the leaves. Smaller stems are OK. Wash the leaves and cut them into half-inch-wide strips. You can roll them into cigars to speed this up.

Put the bacon in a stock pot on high head to render its grease, 3 or so minutes. Add the onion and cook until translucent but not brown, about 5 minutes more. Add the greens and cover with cool water. Add the red pepper, salt and salt pork.

Here's where the recipe veers a bit depending on which green you're cooking. turnip greens take about an hour; for collards, simmer for about 2 hours; mustard greens take the longest, usually about 3 hours.

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.