Black-eyed peas are eaten at the start of the New Year for luck and prosperity. Most commonly, the legumes are served as a sort of stew called Hoppin’ John, which has been cooked with smoked pork and long-cooked greens.
I have scoured the Internet for hours trying to find the source of this tradition. Some say the beans look like coins, but who came up with that notion? Was it the slaves who (probably) brought black-eyed peas with them from West Africa? Was it the poor Southerners during the Civil War? If you know the answer to this (and can document it—Wikipedia does not count), please comment below!
The thing is, I don’t really like Hoppin’ John. But I do like black-eyed peas, and, like most of us, I could use all the luck and prosperity I can get. There are plenty of recipes for black-eyed peas that are wonderful, including a salad I’ve had in Brazil. It contains the beans, bell peppers and onion, along with some herbs and salt cod—a nod to the Portuguese influence in Brazil—all dressed with a vinaigrette. Of course, Brazil has a lot of African influence too, also due to the slave trade, and black-eyed peas are eaten there in many forms.
A practically identical salad (minus the salt cod) hails from Texas and is called Texas Caviar. It’s said to be the invention of a woman named Helen Corbitt, which seems unlikely given the fact that Ms. Corbitt was a white woman from upstate New York and black-eyed peas are such a staple of African-American cuisine in the U.S.
In the end, all this Internet searching never got me to the bottom of the luck and prosperity question, but I did learn a lot about African influence in new world cuisine. To me, at least, this sort of thing is fascinating and is, in a small way, making me just a little richer.
West African-Style Black-Eyed Pea Salad (a.k.a. Texas Caviar)
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
Fine sea salt
1 garlic clove
3 tablespoons lime juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
3 bell assorted bell peppers; red, yellow, orange
1 red onion
1 habanero pepper, finely chopped
½ cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
Cover black-eyed peas with water and bring to a boil. Boil black-eyed peas until they’re tender but still hold their shape, about 45 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon salt to pot and remove from heat. Let black-eyed peas cool to warm in cooking liquid.
Meanwhile, mince and mash the garlic and ¼ teaspoon salt to a paste with a chef’s knife and whisk together with the lime juice, oil, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 3/4 teaspoon pepper.
Chop the peppers and onion, then toss with the dressing, cilantro, oregano, and black-eyed peas. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Similar stories on TakePart