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What Southern Folks Eat: Here's to a delicious new year

By Stephanie Hill-Frazier Guest Columnist

There are certain foods that we Southerners claim proudly as our own; things like cornbread, muscadine jelly, and, of course, greens. And on Jan. 1, we make sure we get those greens on our table and into our bellies, as dictated by our tradition which says that black-eyed peas, cornbread and greens will bring us luck all year if eaten on New Year’s Day. Even better are the leftovers which have time to hang out in the fridge a day or two, developing an even better flavor as they do. Talk about lucky!

Whether you believe in luck or not, you probably follow along with the tasty traditions, as do I, simply because in the South, it’s what we do. It’s part of our lovely culture. 

First, I always make greens. Collards and other types of greens (and according to some folks, cabbage) are considered “lucky” foods for the New Year. They are said to represent green "folding money," and by eating it, you open yourself up to prosperity in the New Year. The same is believed true of cornbread; its golden color might just bring gold coins into your pocket, tradition says. 

Happy new year 2021

There's no doubt greens have a storied history in the South. Believe it or not, they didn’t originate in our soil. Research by food historians indicates collard greens, for example, originated in eastern Mediterranean countries. It was many years later they were brought to this continent, arriving from Africa via slaves in the 1600s.

Turnip greens are a tender green, with the perfect hint of bitterness, often cooked with a splash of vinegar and a sprinkle of sugar to complement that bitterness. While most people simmer them with ham hocks, they're also easy to use as a stir-fried green or in soups. Turnip greens are believed to have been cultivated in Hellenistic and Roman times, more than 4,000 years ago.

Though they arrived in the U.S. at different times and in various ways, we are certainly happy that these greens, along with the familiar spinach and kale, are popular on Southern tables. If any are new to you, try them out in the soup recipe below, for starters, keeping in mind you can use any type of green in the recipe. Remember that thicker greens, like collards, will take longer to cook to tenderness than a delicate green like baby kale.

Perhaps most famously, Southerners eat black-eyed peas on Jan. 1. Why is that? The most widely told story my research revealed says that during the Civil War, black-eyed peas were a prevalent crop in the South. The peas were primarily grown as food for livestock, and they did well in the soil and climate of the Southern states.

The story that has been passed down for decades says that when Gen. Sherman and his Union soldiers raided the Confederate soldiers' food supply, they left behind the "livestock food," the black-eyed peas, considering them unworthy of human consumption. This left the Confederates with a plentiful source of nourishment, and they considered themselves lucky to have the peas to eat as the war waged on.

Lastly, pork, especially fatback or hog jowls, is said to bring good luck in the new year. Pigs are believed to be lucky in many cultures around the world, but in the South, the pork most folks had readily available during the cold month of January was cured meat, like bacon and hog jowl meat, so this is what they'd eat on New Year's Day. 

Luckily for us, greens, cornbread, peas and salted pork of any kind go well together, making our celebration of the New Year really satisfying and delicious. 

Here are a couple of my favorite soup recipes featuring these “lucky” ingredients to help you kick off 2021 with delicious satisfaction:

Black-eyed Pea Soup with ham and greens

1 tablespoon olive or canola oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 cup celery, chopped

1/2 cup bell pepper (any color), diced

6-8 oz ham, chopped

4-5 cloves garlic, diced (or 4 tsp minced jarred garlic)

1 quart vegetable or chicken broth

2 cans black-eyed peas, drained (or soak and cook your own, about 3 cups worth)

2 cups chopped turnip greens, kale, or spinach (fresh or frozen)

28-ounce can diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon Tony Chacheres or other Creole seasoning

salt and pepper, to taste

Method

  1. Heat oil over medium heat in large soup pot or Dutch oven. Add onion, celery, and bell pepper. Cook until onion is translucent. Do not allow to burn.
  2. Add chopped ham and garlic, and cook for two minutes, just long enough to warm them.
  3. Add chicken broth, peas, greens, tomatoes and seasonings.
  4. Simmer over low heat for 30 minutes or longer, stirring occasionally. Alternatively, you may cook together in crock pot for six hours. Your house will smell wonderful!

Mama Steph’s Simple and Spicy Black-eyed Pea Soup

16-ounce bag of dried black-eyed peas, soaked according to package directions, then cooked and seasoned with salt to your taste. (alternatively, use two 15-ounce cans of the peas, drained and rinsed.) I cook my peas with an onion, chopped, and a teaspoon or so of olive oil, and I don’t salt until they’re almost done.

1 medium onion, chopped (this is separate from any onion you cooked your peas with)

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 package of polska-kielbasa or other favorite link sausage, sliced into medallions

Chicken broth (6 cups or so if you have it; fill in with water if you feel you need a bit more broth)

salt and pepper or Tony Chachere’s seasoning, or other seasoned salt, to taste

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes

Method

  1. Pour olive oil into the bottom of a stock pot or Dutch oven on a burner at medium heat.
  2. When the oil is hot, add sliced sausage and chopped onion.
  3. Cook, stirring, for three minutes or until the onions begin to turn clear.
  4. Add minced garlic, stir in, and cook for another minute.
  5. Add cooked peas. (Note: While I cooked a whole 16-ounce package, I took out about a cup of the cooked peas for another use. There were still plenty.)
  6. Add chicken broth and stir.
  7. Season with salt (or a seasoning blend like Tony Chacheres’ Cajun blend in the green can, which is our favorite) to taste.
  8. Add red pepper flakes and parsley flakes.
  9. Gently simmer ingredients for at least 20 minutes, stirring often so that peas do not scorch.
  10. Don’t allow your peas, as you’re cooking them, or the soup itself, to come to a full rolling boil. Simmer gently, so that your peas don’t turn into mush.

Bonus recipe, for those of you who want something really different!

Mama Steph's Good Luck Tacos

Mama Steph's Good Luck Tacos with black-eyed peas and cabbage

Ingredients

1 can of black eyed peas, drained and rinsed

1 small onion, minced

1/2 large cucumber, peeled and diced

1/2 head of green cabbage, shredded

8 ounces sliced mushrooms (optional)

cooked pork roast or pork steak leftovers, shredded

Low-sodium soy sauce or Bragg's Liquid Aminos

Vinegar of choice

Small corn tortillas

Method

  1. Warm tortillas in oven on low while you prep the other ingredients.
  2. To prepare cabbage mixture: Place shredded cabbage in wok or skillet that has a tablespoon warmed oil in it. Begin to stir fry the cabbage. After five minutes, add the mushrooms, and continue to cook until all veggies are tender. Add a tablespoon soy sauce, and toss to coat.
  3. To prepare relish: Place diced onion and cucumber in a bowl, and sprinkle generously with vinegar. Allow to pickle for at least 10 minutes.
  4.  Assemble: Place a warm corn tortilla on plate. Top with one or two tablespoons of shredded meat. Top with cooked cabbage mixture, then add a spoonful of black-eyed peas, and then of pickled onions and cucumbers.

Dig in and enjoy!

During this new year, I wish only the best for each and every one of you. May 2021 be full of health, happiness and healing for us all.

Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food writer and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph”. She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com