What it is: A kind of cowpea, the black-eyed pea or bean (Vigna unguiculata unguiculata), is a mild-tasting, kidney-shaped legume with a black ring at its center, typically used as a dried bean. Southern U.S. legend has it that eating blackeyes at New Year’s Day brings good luck and prosperity in the coming year.
Where it comes from: The black-eyed pea has been cultivated since the Neolithic times. It’s unclear where it originated, but it grew in Judea by 500 B.C. An early mistranslation of an exhortation from Rabbi Abaye in the Babylonian Talmud , confusing the Aramaic word rubiya (“fenugreek”) with lubiya (“black-eyed peas”) led to the legumes being served as a lucky food at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year and, ultimately, the secular New Year as well.
Black-eyed peas have been grown in the United States since the 1600s, apparently arriving from Africa with the slave trade, and the New Year’s symbolism may have migrated from Sephardic Jews who moved to the South in the 18th century to their black cooks.
According to Poppy Cannon, writing in the Chicago Daily Defender in 1968:
Way down South, in the old days, they used to say that you would have as many dollars during the year — as black-eyed peas on New Year’s. . . . In Harlem and Chicago’s South Side, they say that ‘Eating peas is just for coins. Collard and other greens bring folding money. And pig, all parts of the pig, will make you healthy, wealthy and sharp’.
Top blackeye-growing states today are Arizona, California and Texas.
What to do with it: The most common New Year’s prep for blackeyes is probably hoppin’ john, a dish of peas and rice typically flavored with ham hocks, but when Chef Phillip Foss of Lockwood in the Loop recently blogged about his delicious-sounding technique for cooking beans, I asked him if it would lend itself to blackeyes. He responded with the recipe below.
Chef Phillip Foss
2 cups black-eyed peas
1 quart chicken stock or water
4 sprigs thyme
1 sprig sage
1 branch rosemary
1 branch celery, cut in 4
1/4 onion, peeled
1 tomato, quartered
1/2 carrot, peeled and rough cut
1 head garlic, split
1/4 cup rendered duck fat
Kosher salt to taste
Cover the peas with water in a nonreactive saucepan, and boil for 2 to 3 minutes (no soaking). Discard the water; rinse the peas and pot. Return the peas to the pot, add the chicken stock or water, and bring to a boil.
In the meantime, make a bouquet garni by wrapping the thyme, sage and rosemary with the celery branch pieces and kitchen twine like a tourniquet.
Once the stock has come to a boil, skim the impurities and add the onion, tomato, carrot, bouquet garni and garlic, and continue cooking at a strong simmer/soft boil until the peas are tender (about 45 minutes).
Strain the beans, saving the liquid. Transfer the peas to a long baking pan, toss with the rendered duck fat and reserve.
Using tongs, pick out the vegetables and bouquet and return to the pot with the reserved liquid. Bring to a boil over high heat, and cook down to a glaze. Remove the bouquet. Pass the vegetables and glaze through a food mill.
In a mixing bowl, combine the puree with the peas and season to taste. Cover and refrigerate if not serving right away. 10 4-ounce servings.