Southern New Years Tradition: Hoppin’ John, Greens & Cornbread

I appreciate how my mother gently reminds me each year of our family’s (well, and many, many other Southern folk’s) tradition of eating black eyed peas, cornbread, and boiled greens on new year’s day. This meal is eaten to bring luck, prosperity, and health!

Pork is used in the black eyed peas/hoppin’ john dish and not chicken. They say this is done because hogs root forward with their noses and chickens scratch backwards. The idea is that we want to move forward into the new year and not go backward. Going backwards is bad luck.

With that said, there are lots of variations of this combination. As well, there are folks in the South with a more German influence and they will eat cooked cabbage or sauerkraut, and sausage.

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So, this is the first year I’ve prepared this as I’ve typically gone to my mom’s house. And, I think it turned out great… My daughter, who is determined to have ‘red princess lips’ is eating a lot of green, leafy vegetables (for iron)…so she gladly ate her leafy greens first, lol.

I definitely put my spin on things…but the baseline recipes are traditional and Southern. My mom shared with me her favorite black eyed pea recipe (see below and I didn’t use pig tails, by the way), and boiled greens recipes from Edna Lewis’s cookbook. I used my favorite cornbread recipe (at the very end of this post).

On-line sources will say that black eyed peas are eaten on new year’s day due to something that happened at the end of the Civil War. Apparently, Union soldiers destroyed and looted all the other crops but left black eyed peas as they were considered animal fodder. The starving families in the South were basically saved by the fact that the black eyed peas had been left behind.

I’m not sure if this story is true, but I do know that the Civil War is not as straightforward as people think it is. When you look at history, the lines blur…and all you can see is that a lot of people suffered and were in great pain. The fact that the Civil War was fought on Southern territory is still evident in the land and the people there with various inflammatory diseases gone rampant…as well as shorter life expectancy for men (think heart disease).

I will say that it is a known fact that black eyed peas were more ‘chalky’ tasting and thus considered livestock feed (specifically for cattle). They were also commonly used as a cover crop considering that they are members of the nitrogen-fixing legume family. There are other ‘peas’ like purple hull peas, island red pea, and the Whippoorwill were known to be consumed by humans. So, maybe there is some merit to the story of black eyed peas (or cowpeas) being viewed as cattle food and not human food.

Other ideas on this meal point to a potential tradition that enslaved Africans observed when they were given time off during the winter holidays. One Washington Post article says:

“Taylor suggests that the tradition might (emphasis on “might”) have started during that fallow period between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when slaves were given time off. The harvest season was essentially over, the planting season yet to come. It was a good time to give thanks for past crops, Taylor says, and raise expectations for the coming season. Such a ritual could have developed into a good-luck tradition, with the slaves’ favorite dish of hoppin’ John as the centerpiece.”

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Maybe it’s a little of all that I mentioned above… Truly, though, this humble dish points to the meeting of peoples under terrible circumstances…from indentured servants to slaves to those who experienced forced removal. Black eyed peas (really they are beans) from West Africa, maize/corn from the Americas, ham/pork used in these dishes from Europe, and dark, leafy greens mostly inspired by African cuisine…

Even with the anguish underlying the meeting and mingling of these ingredients, so much nourishment prevails. I’ll never forget my Southern Folk Medicine teacher, Phyllis Light, teaching us about traditional Southern foods. She broke down the core food staples such as: peas and beans (think pot licker), leafy green vegetables, cornbread, squash, persimmons, muscadines, sweet potatoes, okra, pecans, and typically ham for meat. These foods are packed with B vitamins, Vit A, Vit C, iron, zinc, and number of other nutrients.

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One thing that Southerners didn’t realize is the need to nixtamalize the corn for the B3/Niacin to be available. This was a long-practiced tradition among Native Americans who had been eating and preparing corn for countless generations (thus, masa corn flour which uses lime/lye to process the corn). When people began subsisting on corn that was *not* nixtamalized, pellagra developed…which is a wasting disease that effects the entire body.

As well, economic drivers caused the issue of pellagra. This article from Discover magazine says:

“The grain had only recently become a popular foodstuff. As “King Cotton” and textile mills came to dominate the South’s post-Civil War economy, many families converted all their farmland to cotton. They stopped planting vegetables and keeping livestock. As a result, many poor Southerners now ate almost exclusively what was called the three Ms: low-quality meat, molasses and meal (industrially refined cornmeal) — the same cheap gruel often served at orphanages and asylums. Pellagra was most widespread among populations subsisting on the three Ms.”

A Jewish doctor married to a Southern woman, named Goldberger, was assigned the task of figuring out the cause of the disease. He steadily proved it was not a pathogen and that the issue was poor diet. He figured out that brewer’s yeast resolved the issue and pushed the Red Cross to distribute brewer’s yeast to poor Southerners. They didn’t know what Niacin was back then…but they knew that brewer’s yeast resolved the issue of a high corn diet.

It would be much later that they figured out the nixtamalization issue.

It’s a curious thing that brewer’s yeast didn’t catch on and become a staple in the South considering this history. I’ve never had a meal in the South were this was an ingredient, personally.

Well, and it makes sense why the brilliant George Washington Carver moved peanut butter into the Southern population. Peanut butter is also high in Niacin…something definitely needed in a population that subsists off of corn that is not nixtamalized.

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This brings me to my last thought. Sciples Mill in Kemper County, MS is just a 40 minute drive from where I grew up. It has been in operation since 1790, roughly. Basically, it is said to be the longest running business in Mississippi. Yes, it is still running. Both my mother and my grandmother took me to Sciples Mill multiple times when I was growing up. I’ve taken a couple friends there as an adult, as well.

I showed my daughter a video clip of this place the other day and the owner mentioned that he had to get his corn from Kentucky because there isn’t a producer in Mississippi that grows enough corn for him to grind. I just thought that was crazy!

Mississippi has some of the best farmland in the world (hello Mississippi Delta) and all they can do is grow Bt corn and GMO soy. I shudder in the deepest recesses of my body when I think of this.

End of rant.

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One thing that is for sure regarding this meal is that there are a lot of stories to trace back into the past. Those stories are filled with hardship, despair, betrayal and yet collaboration, resilience, and determination.

So, when my mom gently reminds me of what my ancestors have eaten for generations, she is reminding me of the complexity of my past…of our past…and the chance to begin again.

Much prosperity, joy, health, and well-being to you all as we enter the new cycle!

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Cornbread Recipe

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. As the oven warms, put a spoon full of butter or ghee in a size 8 skillet. Place the skillet in the oven to warm so that when you pour your cornbread batter into the skillet, the crust will be brown and crispy.

1 1/2 c buttermilk or kefir (dairy-free kefir, as well)
2 eggs
1 tbsp honey

Whisk this together until blended well… Then stir in:

1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 c cornmeal
1/4 c butter, melted (I use ghee which is not Southern at all)

Remove the hot skillet from the oven and pour the batter into the skillet. Place it back in the oven and cook for 30 minutes at 425 degrees or until nicely browned on top.

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