Thursday, January 12, 2017

Pass the Black-Eyed Peas ... to Someone Else (plus recipes)

Did everyone have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year? Good! I enjoyed both, thank you … except for one thing: I’m a Texan through and through, and no red-blooded Texan can let New Year’s Day pass without complaining about honoring one of its most reviled revered traditions.

I’m speaking, of course, about black-eyed peas.

No one in the American South escapes childhood without becoming painfully aware black-eyed peas are a mandatory part of the New Year’s Day meal. I say “painfully” because I would rather eat dirt than the black-eyed peas grown in it — and I’m not alone in that sentiment. Nevertheless, no matter what else is on the New Year’s Day menu, the cook had better sneak black-eyed peas into the mix somewhere or the whole year will head straight for hell on the handbasket express.

Notice the pure evil in those beady little black eyes.
Native to Africa, black-eyed peas reportedly migrated to Virginia in the late seventeenth century. Not until after the American Revolution did anyone take them seriously, but that didn’t stop the little connivers from worming their way southward and westward with settlers. The scoundrels proved incredibly hardy, darn them, and soon were well entrenched in fields hither and yon, biding their time until the moment was right to spring onto some unsuspecting family’s table.

According to legend, that moment occurred in early 1864 as General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union troops ran roughshod over every square inch of ground from Atlanta to the sea. As if the situation weren’t dire enough for the Confederacy, the Yankees “confiscated” (read “stole”) every edible scrap they could get their hands on, leaving behind only things they considered livestock feed: black-eyed peas, greens, and corn. For Lord only knows what reason, they also left the salt pork, although they made off with every other kind of meat they could scavenge.

Little did Sherman and his men know that by abandoning the black-eyed peas, they abandoned an excellent source of calcium, folate, protein, fiber, and vitamin A, among other nutrients. (That is the only nice thing I will ever say about the vile vegetable.)

Here — look at the pretty picture of cornbread.
It'll settle your stomach.
Thankful the Yankee locusts left anything in their wake, white southerners learned to consume food slaves and po’ folks had eaten for generations: black-eyed peas, greens, salt pork, and cornbread. Those staples helped southerners of all ethnicities survive the winter. When New Year’s Day 1865 rolled around, they were delighted to find themselves still alive. The same could not be said for their palates, if the black-eyed pea custom is any indication.

Thus, a tradition was born, dangit.

According to southern lore, black-eyed peas, greens, pork, and cornbread each symbolize a hope for the future (or a reminder of the “just shut up and eat it” principle):
  • Black-eyed peas are for prosperity, because they swell when cooked. Some also say the peas represent coins. Folks who want to get technical about their prosperity eat one pea for each day of the coming year, although for the life of me I can’t figure out who has the patience to count out 365 black-eyed peas per serving.
  • Greens (collard, turnip, or mustard) bring money, because they’re the color of dollar bills. In addition to eating cooked greens, some folks hang uncooked stalks from the ceiling in order to attract prosperity. To my way of thinking, that habit just means one more thing to dust.
  • Pork symbolizes forward progress, because pigs root forward when they forage.
  • Cornbread symbolizes gold. It also does an excellent job of soaking up pot likker — the liquid left after greens are cooked — which is considered a delicacy and aphrodisiac. In addition, if you crumble enough cornbread into a serving of black-eyed peas, you’ll never know the peas are there.

There’s a trick an art to preparing inedible irresistible black-eyed peas: Disguise their flavor and texture with a whole mess of other ingredients. If you insist on adopting or continuing a tradition passed down to today’s southerners by ancestors who evidently believed suffering is good for the soul, my recipe is below. (A word to the wise: I cook by taste, not necessarily by recipe. The one dish I don’t taste while it cooks? Black-eyed peas. I prefer to save myself for dinner, in the fervent hope the disgusting delicious peas will have been devoured — or mysteriously disappeared — by the time I get to the table.)

A Pot of Good Stuff with a Couple of Black-eyed Peas Thrown in So I’m Not Singlehandedly Responsible for the End of Civilization as We Know it

4 or 5 slices bacon
1 large onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups fresh or frozen black-eyed peas
2 lbs. smoked ham hock, large, meaty ham bone, or enormous slab of ham (the more meat, the less chance a black-eyed pea will creep into your portion)
½ tsp. kosher or sea salt (or to taste)
Ground black pepper to taste
¼ tsp. allspice
2 tsp. Tabasco or other hot-pepper sauce (use more or less, to taste—I use about half a bottle)
4 cups chicken stock
Additional chicken stock or water, as necessary

1. In a large stock pot, fry bacon until crisp. Remove and set aside.

2. Sauté onion, celery, and garlic in bacon grease until tender.

3. Add remaining ingredients, plus crumbled bacon, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 30 mins. to 1 hour or until tender. (There’s a fine line between tender and mushy. For me, that line is before the peas are in the pot. You’ll have to determine the texture you prefer on your own.)


No one has to force me to eat collard or turnip greens on New Year’s Day — or any other day. I’ve always enjoyed them. (Psst: The secret to great greens is vinegar, but you didn’t hear that from me.)

Always serve greens with black-eyed peas. Always, because this is where finesse comes into play: If you ladle greens on top of the black-eyed peas, you can eat your fill of greens and then push away from the table, pat your stomach, and announce “I can’t eat another bite!” before you’ve reached the detestable delectable peas hidden underneath.

Collard, Turnip, or Mustard Greens with Salt Pork

2 pounds (about two large bunches) fresh greens
6 strips of bacon
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tomatoes, chopped
5 cups water
1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
½ tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1 piece salt pork, sliced, or 2 meaty ham hocks (or both)
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and ground black pepper to taste

1. Thoroughly wash leaves and remove any woody stalks and center veins. (Small stems and veins are okay.) Tear leaves into large pieces or cut into strips.

2. In a large stock pot, fry bacon until crisp. Remove and set aside.

3. Sauté onion and garlic in bacon grease until tender.

4. Add tomatoes and meat, plus the crumbled bacon. Pour in water and vinegar and bring to a simmer.

5. Add greens, tamping them down so the water covers them.

6. Cover and simmer until tender — about 1½ to 3 hours, depending on type of greens. Turnip and collard greens require 1½ to 2 hours; mustard greens may take as long as 3 hours.

A Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperadoes. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s stories, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.

Visit her hideout on the web at


  1. Great post, Kathleen! Loved your word substitutions, too funny! Love our black-eyed peas, collards, & cornbread, our family never misses that traditional meal on New Year's! Your recipes are very similar to mine.

    1. I'm glad somebody likes those foul little legumes. :-D Actually, I can eat a bite or two on New Year's Day, and that recipe is pretty good. My mother handed it down to me, along with her recipes for greens and cornbread. I could eat my weight in greens and cornbread.

      Glad you liked the post, Cheri! :-)

  2. No one can write a good article about black-eyed peas as you can!
    Well...I was raised on Black-eyed peas and loved them. We all did. My mother was a food hoarder, even though there was a perfectly good Piggly Wiggly in town, she could not trust them to always have enough food for everyone. So, she had a refrigerator and a big upright freezer, and she canned all kinds of stuff--in a huge cast-iron canner. My little sister and I were dragged to farmer's fields in the summers to pick a bushel of...whatever..take it home, and began preparing it for the canning jars. Other little girls romped and played, but Nancy and I helped can. Oh, we have picked many-a bep--I'm tired writing the words, so from here on, I will use bep--in addition to okra, tomatoes, carrots, etc.
    I do regret that I hurt Mother's feelings when I was a grown woman with two babies and lived in the same town for a while. One morning she called and said, Celia, come on over here today. I have a bushel of bep and the jars and everything, and I will teach you to can bep.
    I told her, no, I don't want to...if I want bep I'll go to PW and buy a can. She was angry...but more than that, Kathleen...she was hurt. I regret that every Mother's Day..and apologize to my mother in heaven.
    Her response to my rejection? "You just wait. Some day you will need bep and you won't know how to can them."
    And by the way...I do like them.

    1. Celia, you had me laughing out loud. "Some day you'll want bep, and you won't know how to can them." Those very same words could have come out of my mother's and grandmother's mouths. :-D I'll bet your mother forgave you for hurting her feelings. Mothers are like that.

      I'm glad I learned to can as a girl. I haven't canned anything in years, but I used to make okra pickles (I like okra almost any way it's fixed), chow-chow, bread-and-butter pickles, and jams.

      You can have my share of the bep, though. ;-)

  3. Kathleen, I love bep if they are harvested before they're dry and if they have snaps in them. We just cook them in water with a ham bone that still has meat on it. We do serve cornbread with them. We didn't know about the greens tradition, so now I know why we aren't prosperous.
    The town where my mom grew us is Hollis, Oklahoma and they have a BEP Festival the 3rd weekend in August. We took my mom once and she loved it but didn't care to go back. Bea and I took her back when my cousin got married to her second husband and we rented a van and drove all over the county. Oops, I digressed. Good post.

    1. You and Bea shanghaied your mother and forced her to go look at bep? Y'all are cruel, cruel women.

      I love greens of almost any kind -- except kale. I don't know how people eat that stuff. It's just nasty. **shudder**

  4. Dear Kathleen, thank you for the informative and HUMOROUS post. loved it. And thanks for the warning re: black-eyed peas.

    1. Gini, save yourself. If someone mentions black-eyed peas, make up an allergy if you must. Hide them under the mashed potatoes (no one leaves mashed potatoes on their plate unless they're so full they can't eat another bite). Pretend you've developed a severe headache and need to go lie down. Say you're allergic to the little demons, if you must. Just don't eat them. :-D

      Thanks for stopping by! :-)

  5. Bep? Too funny. Bep have always come from a can. Never tried them from scratch. There's a reason for that. Why knock myself out over something when there are lots of other varieties that I liked more. Hubby never complained about canned bep. It's the greens I try very hard to avoid. They taste like bitter dead lettuce to me. But I will eat a bite-full because maybe someday someone will prepare them and they will actually taste good. Then I will know why everyone raves about them. But cornbread is a favorite, spoonbread, find a way to prepare it and I will eat it, except for grits. I can make them and like it. But to me, it's cream of sand the way others make it, and I'd rather have cream of wheat, farina, or oatmeal. Can you tell I'm a Yankee? Hubby moved me into the South and went to work. That left me alone to handle all the other daily chores of a household. I soon discovered I wasn't just a Yankee. They add another word in front of Yankee so that two words are one word. It happened every time I opened my mouth. Hubby told me to ignore it and so I did...eventually. :-) And up North, it's Boston Baked beans and brown bread. (Which is served steamed and delicious with cream cheese on it.) Yep I can do them from scratch! I even own a traditional bean pot for baking them. Shoot! Now I'm hungry.

    1. I love Boston baked beans! The real ones, not that stuff from a can masquerading as Boston baked beans. I've never had the nerve to try making my own, but I have some Yankee friends (don't tell anyone about that or I'll be exiled) who make delicious Boston baked beans. I always somehow manage to show up when they've fixed a batch. (Not that I would barge in on someone else's dinner, you understand.) I've never had brown bread, but from your description it sounds delicious.

      Grits are an acquired taste for folks who didn't grow up eating them, I suppose. I love your description: "cream of sand"! :-D Believe it or not, there are people who've never heard of grits. I think they all live in California, because people out there always looked at me funny when I mentioned them.

      If greens taste like bitter dead lettuce, somebody's not cooking them right. :-D Try adding vinegar. It really does make a difference. Another thing I'll bet Yankees don't care for is wilted salad. Take a bunch of fresh spinach (my favorite) or lettuce or a mixture of both, pour hot bacon grease and vinegar over it, and top with crumbled bacon and diced hard-boiled eggs. That's another Southern staple, and it's delicious. (Anything with bacon is delicious, IMO.)

      As much bacon, bacon grease, and gravy as we eat down here, I'm surprised any of us survive beyond the age of 12. :-D

      Thanks for stopping by, Yankee! Sounds like you've done a pretty good job of assimilating in a foreign country. :-)

    2. ROTFL! I've been south of the Mason Dixon line for 46 years this May! I have survived.(I think.) Hubby was from the Boston area. I learned to eat okra and loved it! I will spare you my first attempt to cook it. I'll leave it with my southern neighbor was laughing so hard that she couldn't speak and she gave me the recipe! And I've learned that pecan pie is pea-cahn and not peek'in pie. And I had no idea what a BBQ sandwich was. Oh was I teased! BBQ'ed what??? Chili to me was made with ground beef! I had no clue about white chili or "other" chili! Are you Texan's crazy? How does anyone eat anything that hot? Omigosh! Does it taste that bad that you must disguise the flavor with Texas Pete? :-)

  6. So many of the foods Yankees turned their noses up about were truly the best nutritional foods around. Southerners certainly are resilient. We can take just about anything that grows and make a meal--poisonous polk berries have some leaves that can be cooked and made into a meal and I'm here to tell ya, we have plenty of polk berry bushes around here. I hope I never have to eat it, but it can be food.
    I think I know why the Yankees left the salt pork. My parents were born and raised Yankees from Pennsylvania. I remember my mother looking at salt pork in the grocery store. She turned to Pop and said, "This is the worst excuse for bacon I ever saw." So, I think the Yankee soldiers thought the same thing and let it stay where it was--and where it belonged. Salt pork can lend a lot of flavor to greens and beans--just sayin'.
    I sort of got the best of 2 worlds. My mother cooked some great Pennsylvania Dutch dishes like Shoo-Fly pie and was queen of yeast breads and doughnuts, but I also got to grown up eating good old southern food like grits, barbeque, the best biscuits on Earth (something my mother never got the hang of making. Sorry, Mom.,)cornbread and tasty vegetables with a touch of salt pork.
    I cay without a doubt though, that I am not a fan of black-eyed peas.
    As always, a wonderful post, Kathleen. I loved the history behind southern cooking.

  7. Oh Kathleen. You are just too funny when you write. Loved this post. I'm still chuckling. I've never quite heard black-eyed peas described so vividly. I guess where there's a will, there's a way when someone wants or needs to camouflage them. I'd never had black-eyed peas until I married my husband, went to Chicago while he attended A-school in the Navy before we left for oversea and lived next door to a young couple from S. Carolina. She cooked all sorts of southern dishes. Esp. black-eyed peas in whole bunches of different dishes. Never really got the craving for them(I like all sorts of peas and beans) but I tolerated them in her soups. It was the okra that had me gipping and gagging. I love most vegetables, but OKRA? Slimy, funny flavored.... Well. Okra for me is black-eyed peas to you. I'll leave them both, come to think about it. I can only say since I'm a northerner, I'll let others eat the Okra and Black-eyed peas. So I guess that's not too persnickity.


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