New Year’s foods: For luck or money?

Published 12:14 am Sunday, January 1, 2012

NATCHEZ — Norma West said she does not really believe in luck, but she does count her blessings by each spoonful of black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.

Plenty of Natchezians fix heaping helpings of traditional New Year’s foods that are supposed to bring good luck and good fortune.

“The peas are good luck,” West said. “And the greens are supposed to be for money.”

Norma West prepares black-eyed peas for good luck, or blessings, in the New Year.

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Southern Living magazine said according to folklore, this New Year’s Day food tradition dates back to the Civil War. Union troops pillaged the land, leaving behind only black-eyed peas and greens as animal fodder. Rich in nutrients, these were the foods that enabled Southerners to survive. While stories on the origin of the traditional dishes differ, the recipes have stood the test of time.

West, a registered nurse, said she uses Camillia brand black-eyed peas because the women before her did.

“They cost a little more, but they are supposed to taste better,” West said.

She prepares the peas by picking through them first, removing discolored ones. Then they are rinsed before landing in a heavy pot full of water on the stove.

To flavor the dish, West said she slices three or four hearty strips from smoked hog jowl.

“I fry it just a little to get all of the oil out,” West said. “After that, I use garlic, bell pepper, onion, parsley and salt and pepper.”

West said after about an hour and a half, the black-eyed peas are ready to eat. Most of the time, her husband, father and two sons expect to see the dish on the table on New Year’s Day.

“The problem will be keeping my husband away from the peas, especially since there is fresh cornbread,” West said.

While West said she does not really believe that consuming black-eyed peas brings good luck, or that eating cabbage or greens brings financial prosperity, she prepares the dishes out of tradition.

“My mother did it, and I know my said.

Another food tradition in her family is frying chitlins on New Year’s Day. A myth surrounding the unique Southern fare says that chitlins should only be consumed in the wintertime.

“Back then, they killed the hogs in the wintertime,” West said. “Now you can eat them anytime because they come frozen.”

Black-eyed peas recipes vary from family to family. Sandy Taylor, William Dunbar DAR chapter regent, said New Year’s foods have been a tradition in her family as long as she can remember.

“Black-eyed peas — you’ve got to have it for good luck,” Taylor said. “My mother used to do it, so I do it. And every year we have good luck.”

Taylor’s lucky dish includes what she calls the forbidden ingredient — bacon drippings.

“It’s terrible for you, but makes everything taste so good,” Taylor said.

She also adds onion, garlic, cayenne pepper, and just a little sugar.

“Sugar is the secret,” Taylor said. “And Splenda is fine.”

Besides various spices Taylor said she likes to use fresh herbs and a ham bone.

While the auspicious black-eyed pea dish is the star of many New Year’s spreads, wealth-inducing cabbage or greens are an important supporting character.

Natchez resident and Natchez Little Theatre actress Yvonne Murray said besides the peas, she serves cabbage on New Year’s Day, but with a twist.

“Because so many people don’t like cabbage, I make slaw,” Murray said. “A friend told me the cabbage is like the equivalent of money for the year. It wouldn’t hurt, so I started incorporating that into the tradition.”

While her mother and friends love the slaw, not every member of the family appreciates it.

“My cat won’t eat the slaw,” Murray said, laughing. “I try to feed my pets so they will have good luck and good fortune.”

Murray said making the slaw is a simple process — starting with slaw mix from the grocery store.

“I put pepper in the slaw dressing, mix it together and let it chill overnight,” Murray said. “And a secret — if you have juice from homemade pickles — put some of that in the dressing and it adds a nice little tang to it. I also add chopped up sweet pickles and onions in the mix.”

Murray said anyone could make the cabbage slaw, just make sure it is well chilled.

Good luck and good fortune aside, revelers will at least start off 2012 satisfied.