As I am preparing to make a traditional New Year’s Day dinner, I have decided I want to know more about where the traditions come from. Now, the tradition varies a little from region to region. The way I learned it was you need to have pork or steak, collard greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and cinnamon apples.
Let’s start with the black-eyed peas, as those seem to be pretty universal. According to Spruce Eats, this has been traditional for at least 1,500 years. That’s a long time. Spruce also posits that the tradition may have started with Jewish people, who apparently ate them to celebrate the Jewish New Year. However, several sources, including Spruce Eats, mention that it was one of the only foods that the Union soldiers left for the Southerners when Sherman’s troops raided their homes for food supplies. Apparently, Northerners did not consider black-eyed peas suitable for human consumption, which as a Southern-born girl, I find a little nutty. However, my favorite theory I found online for so many reasons is that black-eyed peas were commonly fed to enslaved people in the South and eventually became recognized as a soul food. Allegedly, it was one of the only food items formerly enslaved persons had to celebrate with on January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation proclamation went into effect.
Why do I like that last theory? Well, it kind of forces us white folks to admit to another instance of where we appropriated the culture of people we thought we were above for so long. If white people were so much better than non-white folks, why weren’t they stealing our recipes? And it gives us an opportunity to say thank you, something any fan of Southern cooking should be doing for basically the entire cuisine.
On the meat, some people say steak and others say pork. Some people are very specific that it must be hog jowls. However, the way I always learned it was that whichever meat you chose, it was supposed to be a symbol of good fortune. In doing some research, some say that it is also a symbol of health. Growing up in the south, if you had pigs or cattle, you probably had amassed some level of prosperity. But some, like my grandfather, weren’t wealthy farmers with herds of cattle or a drove of pigs, but would buy one hog, feed it for like a year, and then slaughter it. And then you had meat for the entire year, minus what was traded away for other goods.
From an even more superstitious view, supposedly a pig represents moving forward. Since a pig cannot look backward without turning its entire body, people say it is always looking to the future. Kind of cute, but not something I had heard as a girl. And where I grew up, some ate steak instead, allegedly for the same reason, as a symbol of prosperity. However, some say steak is bad luck because a cow stands still, and you want to be moving forward. Just to be on the safe side, I’m going with pig this year.
Collard greens are kind of an easier one, though I guess some people tried to jazz it up. Really it is just one of the last remaining fresh crops you can find in the South. These will generally grow very late into the fall and still be harvestable around the first frost. Some people say that the greens are to represent money. I think someone’s grandma made this up when they were a little hesitant about eating their greens. “Eat those greens, and money will come your way this year.” We all had a grandma that would do that in the South. I also think this one may have come along just because collard greens taste so damned good with pork.
Cornbread is another one that I really think may have just been because it goes well with everything else on the plate. However, some posit this one is about money too. Boy, we are obsessed with money in this country. Some say the cornbread represents gold. And ya, gold was once a real currency. What are we going to make up to represent bitcoin? Really, it is that Southerners just cannot make a pot of beans and not make cornbread.
I could find nothing on the applesauce. This leads me to conclude that either my mother or my grandfather just wanted applesauce. Or maybe it goes back further than that. I know my grandma made and canned a lot of fruits and vegetables. So maybe they just had it available. I attempted to make cinnamon apples in my instant pot this year, because our youngest professes not to like applesauce even though I’m pretty sure she hasn’t tried it since she was 2. However, I overcooked them, and so now we have cinnamon applesauce. It may not truly be a tradition, and it may have no meaning, but if it’ll bring us any luck this year, I’m all for eating some cinnamon apples. Even if it won’t, I like cinnamon apples.
I attest no real accuracy to the theories recounted or my own opinions above. However, with how 2020 went, I’m gonna go ahead and make a superstitious dinner that also happens to be delicious. I’ll tell you all about that in another post!