The question lingers: were the little filth-mottled peas just asking for a beating? Did they have a smart mouth? Could it be that they just don't listen? Or maybe those tiny, dirt-flavored legumes, common as they are, find comfort and security in the occasional bout of minor but nevertheless disfiguring physical abuse? No matter how you prepare the humble black-eyed pea, that time-honored New Year's staple seems an unlikely harbinger of wealth and good fortune. It's a poor man's comfort and bruised at birth. But every year, after the last drops of champagne are gone and the worst hangover is nursed to a dull throb, we eat these little beans for good luck. Why in the world?
The sympathetic magic at work in most New Years' traditions is fairly obvious. Of course, you want that special someone beside you at the stroke of midnight because beginning the New Year with a warm, wet smooch wards off romantic entropy and ensures that love will linger for at least another dozen months or so. The cupboard should always be full on January 1st, because a leanly stocked larder -- according to tradition -- means belts will have to be tightened and budgets carefully managed in the coming year.
Those who hope to grow their capital holdings over the next 12 months shouldn't remove anything from their home on New Year's Day. They shouldn't take out the garbage, sweep out the dust, or even, um, flush. In a best-case scenario (regardless of one's sexual orientation), the day's first visitor should be a tall, dark-haired man bearing a small token of affection: A bottle of wine is perfect, but even an evergreen sprig will do the trick. If all of these rituals are observed and the magic works, then unexpected riches will flow into the house.
And then there's the tradition of the pauper's pea.
Black-eyed peas, whose origins are speculative at best but which may go back to Africa, India, or perhaps even China, swell during the cooking process, creating a vague metaphor for prosperity. At least that's the best explanation I've found for why the dish is thought to be lucky. If served with rice and some sort of pork product, so much the better. Some black-eyed pea experts say that consuming the peas in any form or quantity will guarantee good fortune throughout the year. Others (professional bean counters, no doubt) claim you'll enjoy one 24-hour period of good fortune for each and every bean you eat. Most black-eyed traditions, however, are supremely capitalist and quite literally tied to the concept of raking in cold hard scratch.
Throughout the Deep South, black-eyed peas are prepared with turnip greens, which allegedly represent folding money. In Texas, where people tend to be a bit too literal-minded, they substitute cabbage or (disgustingly enough) actual dollar bills. The most common monetary tradition, however, is to hide a shiny new dime in the pea pot. Everyone who partakes in the feast can expect good luck, but the person who finds the dime will enjoy an especially large slice of the economic pie. If they don't choke to death first. Searching for hidden treasures in a New Year's dish dates back at least to the Romans, though instead of searching for money in a pot of beans, it was more likely that the pre-Christian reveler would be searching for beans hidden inside a holiday cake. These pagan hide-and-seek traditions were assimilated by early Christians and continued through the Middle Ages, becoming most closely associated with 12th Night (January 6th) and the Feast of Fools. The King Cake, an Advent tradition wherein a doll representing the baby Jesus -- a stand-in for the more pagan baby New Year -- is hidden inside a circular pastry, is a direct descendant of these ancient rituals. The round cake now represents a crown and Christ's divinity, but the circle also represents completion, eternity, and the New Year. Eating circular food has always been considered lucky, and in many European countries, doughnuts are still consumed on New Year's Day for the same reason.
Now that you know a bit more about why we eat the battered bean, here's a Memphis-meets-New Orleans recipe for Hoppin' John, the luckiest of all New Year's dishes.
Ingredients: 1 cup rice cooked in chicken broth (seasoned with a sprig of thyme); 1/2 pound andouille sausage; 1 onion diced; 2 cloves minced garlic; 1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped; 16 ounces black-eyed peas, cooked and drained; 1/4cup of your favorite barbecue sauce; 1/2 pound barbecue pork shoulder, chopped. Salt, pepper, and Tabasco to taste.
Preparation: In a large saucepan brown the andouille, then add the onions and celery, cooking them until they are clear. Stir in the rice, black-eyed peas, barbecue sauce, pork, and seasoning.Serve immediately, with or without a dime, depending on your fear of choking. Serves 4-6. •