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by Linda Gorski

Most of us will be celebrating with family and friends on New Years Eve to welcome 2011.  And many of us will be serving black eyed peas in one recipe or another simply because tradition tells us that eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day will bring prosperity and good luck throughout the New Year.  But where did this tradition begin?

According to Wikipedia, the "good luck" traditions of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, are recorded in the Babylonian Talmud compiled around 500 CE.  This custom is followed by Sephardi and Israeli Jews to this day.  In the United States, the first Sephardi Jews arrived in Georgia in the 1730s, and have lived there continuously since. The Jewish practice was apparently adopted by non-Jews around the time of the American Civil War.

In the Southern United States, the peas are typically cooked with a pork product for flavoring (such as bacon, ham bones, fatback, or hog jowl), diced onion, and served with a hot chili sauce or a pepper-flavored vinegar.  The traditional meal also features collard, turnip, or mustard greens, and ham. The peas, since they swell when cooked, symbolize prosperity; the greens symbolize money; the pork, because pigs root forward when foraging, represents positive motion. Cornbread also often accompanies this meal.

Another suggested origin of the tradition dates back to the Civil War, when Union troops, especially in areas targeted by General William Tecumseh Sherman, typically stripped the countryside of all stored food, crops, and livestock, and destroyed whatever they could not carry away. At that time, Northerners considered "field peas" and field corn suitable only for animal fodder, and did not steal or destroy these humble foods.

Today, many parts of the U.S. celebrate the new year by consuming black-eyed peas in one form or another.    Here in Texas, one of the favorite New Year's recipes using black eyed peas is called Texas Caviar.  

Many sources indicate that black eyed pea salad or Texas Caviar was popularized by Helen Corbitt, the famed 1950s food consultant and cookbook author, who directed food service at Neiman Marcus in Dallas.   When she first arrived in Texas from New York, black-eyed peas were not on her culinary radar. But Ms. Corbitt discovered that even wealthy Texans loved the humble legume.    So she tried something different: She pickled the peas in a vinaigrette marinade and served them for New Year's Eve at the Houston Country Club. Only later, when she took her pickled black-eyed peas to Austin's Driskill Hotel, did the dish get the nickname of Texas Caviar.

In case you didn't know it, the East Texas town of Athens has a proud history as the Black-Eyed Pea Capital of the World. Though it's no longer producing them in record numbers, Athens still throws a Black-Eyed Pea Jamboree each year.    Midsummer is peak harvest season for "Athens cowpeas." So although black-eyed peas are traditional at New Year's in Texas, this salad would be just as appropriate for an Independence Day picnic.  Here is Helen Corbett's recipe for Texas Caviar:

4     cups black-eyed peas, cooked
1     cup celery, finely sliced
4     ounces green chiles, chopped
¼     cup red bell pepper, finely diced
½     cup purple onion, diced
2     cloves garlic, finely minced
1     teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
½     teaspoon black pepper
1     teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 ½     cups Italian dressing, or enough to cover peas
    Red cabbage leaves, for garnish
    Minced green onion tops, for garnish
In large glass bowl, combine all ingredients except garnish, stirring to mix well. If liquid does not cover peas in bowl, add a little more dressing.

Marinate, covered, in refrigerator for 24 hours. Drain excess salad dressing, and spoon salad onto a shallow bowl lined with red cabbage leaves. Garnish with green onion tops. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Another one of my favorite black eyed pea recipes is Texas Caviar From the Cowgirl Hall of Fame Restaurant
3 - 16 oz cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed of all juice
1 small jar chopped pimentos, juice included
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, green part only
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 tablespoon Tabasco Sauce
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 bunch parsley, chopped
3 canned or fresh jalapeno chiles, chopped
1 firm, ripe, chopped tomato
2 cups vinaigrette
1 green bell pepper, fine chopped
3 cloves fresh garlic pressed or minced
In a large bowl, stir all ingredients very well.  Refrigerate for at least 4 - 6 hours, preferably overnight, in a sealed or covered container.  Remember - the longer it sits, the better it gets!
Serve with old fashioned saltine crackers or corn tortilla chips.

No matter how you like your black eyed peas, I hope you enjoy them with family and friends as you welcome in the New Year.  

P.S.  Texas Caviar is a great appetizer to bring on a paddling trip and keeps for days -- just put it in a tightly sealed plastic container and serve around the campfire with a bag of tortilla chips.