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Good Luck in the New Year: Why Do We Eat Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day?

09:00 December 31, 2020
By: Laurel Shimasaki

By now, you probably know the short answer: We eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day because it's supposed to be lucky. But who are the people behind that superstition? Is the answer:

  1. A ransacked Confederate army, surviving on the only food left untouched during the war: black-eyed peas. According to legend, General Sherman didn't bother destroying the crops because they were such a lowly food source, basically only good for livestock.
  1. Enslaved people on the day when the Emancipation Proclamation finally set them free. It was New Year's, and they were free by law, but with nothing to eat except black-eyed peas.
  1. The people of Vicksburg, Mississippi, who managed to survive a two-month Civil War siege on—you guessed it—black-eyed peas.
  1. Southern farmers. Winter crops were sparse, though black-eyed peas were a cheap and non-perishable option that could get them through the season.

Clearly, the answer differs depending on if you read articles in The Spruce Eats, Allrecipes, Today, or Tripsavvy. When it comes to folklore, a clear answer is never as interesting as what the myths share in common. Three things link these groups and their stories: the South, the Civil War era, and the fact that times were tough.

The black-eyed pea didn't become a symbol of hard times; instead, it's a lucky New Year's superstition that can offer wealth and prosperity. No matter what version of the myth you pick, the black-eyed pea is a metaphor for grit and survival. It's an inspirational American story. Our ancestors survived the worst. We remember them and celebrate by eating Hoppin' John.

Still, one thing sticks out—what do farmers, townspeople, soldiers, and enslaved people have in common? That's a wide-ranging group of people. Yet somehow, all their descendants came to embrace the same, edible tradition. Eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day is one of the few cultural traditions to successfully jump identity politics. The myth has managed to morph into a story for anyone looking for a little luck in their future. It's a uniquely American tale of unification, but does it matter that each group changed the origin story of the New Year's tradition to suit their outlook?

Of course, it's entirely possible that all four myths have truth in them. It makes sense that people in hard-pressed circumstances survived on black-eyed peas. No matter where you came from, you ate the same thing when times got rough. But the four black-eyed pea origin stories are significant in their differences. In 2020, the country saw a cultural reckoning. The year of protests, elections, and pandemic showed us our stories and realities were at odds. The discrepancy behind the origin of black-eyed peas shows us an undeniably American story of in-groups and deeply rooted pride that can turn polarizing. The tradition's longevity proves that remnants of the Civil War continue today.

The story of black-eyed peas as a New Year's tradition carries three major American storylines: resilience, unification, and its opposite. They're about so much more than luck. In an article for The Spruce Eats, Andrea Lynn wrote, "Eating these simple legumes demonstrates humility and a lack of vanity. The humble nature of the black-eyed pea is echoed by the old expression 'Eat poor on New Year's, and eat fat for the rest of the year.'" Black-eyed peas are a serving of humble pie that offers luck. At the very least, eating them is a reminder to remain unpretentious and optimistic. That sounds like a solid attitude to carry into a new year.

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