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What The Humble Black-Eyed Pea Did for the South

I recently received this little “tidbit” from a friend at the St. Louis Civil War Roundtable and decided to share it with you loyal readers. I cannot vouch for the veracity of the facts but it is an interesting story.

In Southern folklore, the first food to be eaten on New Year’s Day for luck and prosperity throughout the coming year is the humble black-eyed pea, also called the cowpea or technically vigna unguiculata.

It is a heat loving and disease and pest resistant legume. It is a nitrogen fixing botanical that is ideal for crop rotation with corn, tobacco and cotton all of which are major nitrogen depleters.

The practice of eating black-eyed peas for luck is generally believed to date back to the Civil War. At first planted as food for livestock, and later a food staple for slaves in the South, the fields of black-eyed peas were ignored as Sherman’s troops destroyed or stole other crops, thereby giving the humble, but nourishing, black-eyed pea an important role as a major food source for surviving Confederates.

During the Civil War, hungry Union soldiers ate up Southern crops, but they left behind black-eyed peas, which they considered livestock feed; the hearty legumes provided much-needed sustenance during the Reconstruction for Southerners of all classes.

“Peas for pennies, greens for dollars, and cornbread for gold,” goes an old Southern saying. It’s worthy of note that all three were staples of hard-working households that were not flush with income. Collards, turnip, mustard are all common braising greens of the South, though cabbage can make a cameo, too. Cheap, plentiful, and easy to grow, collards in particular are flat, like paper currency, and thus favored.

Paired with the rice and black-eyed peas of the iconic dish Hoppin’ John, greens make a nutritionally complete meal that balances color, texture, and flavor.

While most every Southerner is able to tell you what they eat on New Year’s Day, few know the history behind the tradition and why we eat these foods.

Many say, the tradition dates back to the Civil War. In November 1864, General William T. Sherman and his troops marched from the captured City of Atlanta towards the Port of Savannah. Known as Sherman’s March to the Sea, General Sherman ordered his troops to strip the land of all food, crops, and livestock and to destroy anything they could not carry away. The troops followed orders and the surviving Southerners were left with nothing…EXCEPT, black-eyed peas. The black-eyed pea supply was left completely intact. The troops did not leave these peas as some sort of good-will gesture. They just didn’t know people ate black-eyed peas.

In the North, black-eyed peas were known as “cowpeas” or “field peas”. Cattle ate cowpeas and humans ate only English Peas. Since the North believed only cattle ate black-eyed peas and they had already either taken or eaten all of the cattle, they saw no need to destroy this crop.

The rest is history! After the Civil War, black-eyed peas were the only source of food in the South. The peas saved thousands of Southerners from starvation and gave the South a Second Chance. From New Year’s Day forward, the tradition grew to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for Good Luck and Prosperity.


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