Kitchn Love Letters

The $2 Pantry Staple That’s Bringing Me a Year of Good Luck

published Dec 28, 2022
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black eyed peas in a pot being stirred
Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

As a city girl born and raised in Chicago, I never gave much thought to black-eyed peas. The dried zebra-looking beans were always soaked overnight by my grandmothers before cooking. Who knew you could buy them fresh? It took my relocation to Birmingham, Alabama, as an adult to learn that the peas — which are actually legumes and part of the family of cowpeas — could be purchased fresh, frozen, canned, and dried.

On a 2005 shopping trip to Jefferson County Farmers Market in ‘Bama I was transfixed watching the vintage pea-shellers at work. Peas in their pods were dumped into the sheller, and the jiggling machines stripped the pods off and spit the shelled peas into bushel baskets!

Black-eyed peas are a pantry staple at my house, and as I think about starting a new year with optimistic plans, one of the first things I do in December is pick up my peas for the New Year’s menu.

Credit: Charla Draper

A Brief History About Eating Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day

The Southern tradition of eating these peas for the New Year may have come about from the customs of early immigrants to the Americas. Black-eyed peas, or cowpeas, were included as provisions on ships carrying enslaved peoples from Africa to the New World. After landing in the Americas, folks often grew the peas in their plantation gardens. By the mid-1700s the peas were being eaten by the enslaved and their owners in the South. 

Immigrants from Scotland in the 1700s may have brought their “first footer” belief that the first person to set foot in their home on the new year needed to be someone of dark hair or complexion to bring a year of good luck. Sephardic Jews settled in Georgia in the 1730s. The Jewish practice of eating black-eyed peas, which are symbols of abundance and fruitfulness for Rosh Hashanah, most likely spread to non-Jewish members in the community. Whether folklore or fact, the blend of these customs may have been the basis for making black-eyed peas a must-eat on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.  

According to the late John Egerton, author of Southern Food, it is believed that black-eyed peas have a “mystical and mythical power to bring good luck.” The peas are said to represent coins. Get your peas early — you don’t want to tempt fate by starting the year without them. 

Credit: Charla Draper

What’s So Great About Black-Eyed Peas?

Because both of my grandmothers cooked dried peas, those are my peas of choice. I don’t really have a particular brand; I choose generic packages of dried peas — typically the store brand. Many of my friends, family, and fellow food professionals I chatted with agreed, although a few hard-core brand-loyalists, mentioned the Camellia or Rancho Gordo as the brands they prefer.

Black-eyed peas are incredibly versatile. They’re great in soups and stews, work well with or without meat, and can be served mashed, fried, grilled, roasted, and even blended into baked goods. They’re also a good source of fiber, copper, calcium, and folate, and also contain Vitamins A and K. For folks who opt for a plant-based diet, black-eyed peas provide 13% of your recommended amount of iron per serving.

Find it in stores: Best Choice Blackeye Peas, $1.99 for 16 ounces at Piggly Wiggly

Credit: Charla Draper

What’s the Best Way to Use Black-Eyed Peas?

There are plenty of choices when deciding where to add the peas on your menu. My dish of choice is simple: Black-eyed peas served over rice. Most often I rely on broth from smoked ham hocks or the bone from roast ham to flavor the beans. However, you can use chicken broth or smoked turkey in place of pork. When cooking the peas, you have to taste. If the peas plop loudly into the bowl, they are not quite done; you want them to be fork-tender and creamy, with a hint of earthiness from slow-cooking with one or two bay leaves. 

On New Year’s Day I’ll have my peas with rice, plus greens and cornbread. However you choose to dish up black-eyed peas, here are a couple of my favorite cooking tips to help make sure your black-eyed pea pick earns four-star reviews and good luck in the new year. 

If You’re Going to Cook with Black-Eyed Peas, a Few Tips

  • Soak your beans overnight. I recommend soaking one pound of dried beans in two quarts of water for eight to 10 hours or overnight. It hydrates the beans, shortens the cooking time, and produces tender beans that retain their shape after cooking.
  • Store any unused beans in containers. Dried beans are typically sold in plastic bags. Keep them as fresh as possible by transferring to food-safe containers (with tight-fitting lids that limit exposure of the beans to oxygen).
  • Check the use-by date. You will want to cook the beans before the use-by date. In my experience, beans cooked after the use-by date do not get tender, even if they cook for hours and hours. If beans were sitting on the shelf for more than a year, adding 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda to each pound of beans while you’re cooking them can help make them softer.

Do you have a favorite black-eyed peas recipe for New Year’s Day? Tell us about it in the comments.