There are few memories I cherish as much as visiting my grandmother’s house in the coalfields of West Virginia on New Year’s Day. The intense heat from her wood stove, an overcrowded house filled with family and love, and of course, her traditional New Years meal — cabbage and black-eyed peas.
Back then, as remains the case today, tradition is important and what better time to celebrate timeless rituals than at the beginning of a New Year. It is a time of fresh beginnings and new opportunities. The days get longer with each passing sunrise and there is a new hope that no matter what evils the previous years wrought, the change of the calendar may also bring a change of fortunes.
The reason cabbage is eaten at the start of the new year is based more out of convenience than anything else.
With many rural families growing the vast majority of the food they consumed themselves as recently as a generation ago, by mid-winter cabbage often served as the main vegetable for mountain families through the cold months. This is because cabbage kept longer through the winter than most other vegetables — making them the ideal New Year’s food for a large family.
Over the course of time, this unassuming custom would grow into a tradition in the mountains.
In the years ahead, the Scots-Irish who settled large portions of Appalachia (or kept it from being settled!) married the dinner with an old-world custom of hiding various silver coins in cooking mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage on special occasions and holidays – the recipient of which would be blessed in the year ahead.
However, the granddaddy of all new year’s traditions is without a doubt the annual eating of black-eyed peas.
Known in the Deep South as “Hoppin’ John”, black-eyed peas were typically cooked on New Year’s Day with some type of pork product for flavoring.
There are several legends as to the origin of this Southern custom, but the predominate thought dates back to the American Civil War.
It is said that when Union General William T. Sherman led his army on their notorious “march to the sea”, during which they pillaged the Southland’s food supply.
Multiple authors and historians have written accounts of Yankee soldiers pillaging farms and leaving stocks of black-eyed peas, thinking they were animal food unfit for human consumption.
Southerners considered themselves lucky to be left with some supplies to help them survive the winter, and black-eyed peas evolved into a representation of good luck in the South.
In addition to the eating of black-eyed peas and cabbage with silver coins hidden inside, other new year traditions observed throughout the mountains and the Southland include one known as “First Footer”.
This belief taught that if the first person to set foot in your house after the New Year was a tall and dark haired man, you will have good luck in the coming year.
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