by Cesca Janece Waterfield
When Barack Obama came to the restaurant where Mary Walker is a cook “He didn’t have time to eat,” she says. “He got his peach cobbler to go.” She left the kitchen to see the then-Illinois senator greet employees and diners. “It was exciting, very exciting,” she says.
Peaches Restaurant, on N. Farish St. in Jackson, Mississippi has served traditional soul food since 1961. Martin Luther King has stopped in, as well as Medgar Evers. Its loyal following includes folks who travel some distance, and third generation locals who come regularly for Peaches’ menu of butterbeans, smothered pork chops, pig ears and chitterlings, and much more.
But for New Year’s, Mary Walker says most residents of Jackson will enjoy a traditional meal centered around black-eyed peas. In Richmond and all over the south, black-eyed peas are commonly eaten this time of year. They’re usually cooked with meat, like salt pork or ham, and served with diced onion, hot sauce, or pepper-vinegar. This traditional meal, done right, also features collard greens and cornbread.
Some people say the greens represent paper money, while the black-eyed peas are coins, so eating them on New Year’s Day will ensure that you have cash and change in your pocket throughout the coming year. Although folklore is generally an imprecise science, certain customs continue with diehard loyalists: Some insist that if the peas are to bring prosperity, you have to eat at least 365; one for each day of the year.
Many of these traditions can be traced to the Civil War, but black-eyed peas have symbolized luck and fortune as far back as ancient Egypt, when eating black-eyed peas, an unpretentious and humble food, was believed to show humility, appeasing the gods. Originally native to Africa, black-eyed peas were probably introduced to America by slaves. George Washington Carver promoted the planting of black-eyed peas, for their nutritional benefits to people, and to the soil. While southerners probably eat more black-eyed peas than the people of any region, the variety most commonly found in the grocery store is called a “California Blackeye.”
“Hoppin’ John” is a dish comprised of black-eyed peas cooked with rice. For many, the year couldn’t begin without it. La’V, owner of Richmond’s La’V’s Homemade at 1823 E. Main St. remembers enjoying her grandmother’s Hoppin’ John.
“My grandma used to put all three together; the rice, the black-eyed peas on top, sweet stewed tomatoes on top of that, and then pig’s feet,” La’V remembers. “But what I’ll be doing is black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes and rice, and probably barbequed spareribs instead of pig’s feet.”
What about cornbread? “Of course, that’s automatic!” laughs La’V. “If you’re going to have collard greens and black-eyed peas, you should automatically have cornbread.”
For her black-eyed peas, La’V doesn’t use a set recipe. Instead, she relies on what she learned over years from her mother and grandmother. “You learn how to do it by inspiration,” she says.
Like Peaches Restaurant, La’V’s Homemade serves black-eyed peas daily, although they sell more around New Year’s, especially through take-out sales. La’V says, “I think the tradition is that you bring in the New Year at home, with the family and all.”