It’s a ritual in my family, handed down from my Arkansas mama in our suburban-Chicago kitchen when I was growing up, and handed down to her through generations of southern cooks. I’ve passed along the cultural and culinary imperative to my children as well. We eat blackeyed peas on New Year’s Day.
I accept this tradition without question. When I was growing up, we did not enjoy the multiculturalism or diversity that we take for granted today. Eating blackeyed peas up north was kind of weird back then. We are also blackeyed pea purists. No “Hoppin’ John” for us, no cooking them with jalapenos or anything else funny. A little bacon, or maybe ham (omitted during my vegetarian period). Some onion. Salt and pepper. Water to cover, boil, simmer, let them cook down. I’ve added a few simple innovations through the years. Chicken stock, or beer, or both, for part of the liquid. A couple of tablespoons of cumin tossed in. If I’m using bacon, I cut it into small pieces and brown it in the pan before I start. I drain off most of the bacon fat, give the pan a shot of olive oil, and then saute the onions until soft. I add the cumin, salt and pepper, and just a little stock to get all the good stuff off the bottom of the pan. Then, in go the peas, covered with liquid. They don’t take long to cook. You can eat in about an hour, but they can keep cooking all day if you have a lot of people through.
We also serve the peas drained. No soupyness. They shall be served with pickle relish. Also pretty good with some fresh chopped onion. Ham and cornbread round out the menu. WHY do we do this? It’s the insurance policy for good luck in the coming year.
Even though it’s against everything I was brought up to believe, I do understand why cooks would be tempted to go all fancy with a blackeyed pea recipe. People devoutly defend their preferences as a matter of faith, which it is. Additions of rice, cream, peppers, exotic spices — well, it’s not my style. What nobody really comes out and tells you is, blackeyed peas have no flavor. None. None of their own, anyway. If you’re expecting a flavorful dish, you’ll be disappointed. The fancier the recipe, the more obvious the fact becomes. Better to just go pretty plain.
So I got to thinking that blackeyed peas are the perfect food to start out a new year. I remember my mother emptying the bag of peas into her hand to rinse them as the water ran into the colander. She went through, pea by pea, because there might be some little rocks in there, and you don’t want that. I do the same thing. The flavorlessness of the peas reminds me that they, and the year ahead, can be bland and boring, or they can be a feast. I think of my maternal grandmother, visiting us for New Year’s when I was about seven, piling on the pickle relish like there was no tomorrow. She went for it, and so should we all. You have to add what you like to make it tasty, nourishing, fulfilling. The blackeyed pea, like the year ahead, is the tiny tabula rasa, the blank slate, waiting for your contribution. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Trust yourself to work out what is right for you.”
Have you some peas, now. And a Happy New Year!