10/02/2007

Black Eyed Peas

So the Rebbetzin was perusing her Moosewood Cookbook over Yom Tov, and came across a recipe for black-eyed peas which, according to the book, was customarily eaten in various locales in the United States – mostly Southern, but including Boston as well – on New Year’s eve. This piqued my interest, because I was well aware that black-eyed peas are one of the Rosh Hashana simanim, associated with rubia (link and link). I wondered if there is some connection between the two. After all, it seems incredible that two cultures would independently evolve a custom of eating black-eyed peas on their respective New Yers’ Eve.

Alas, it seems to be just that: a complete coincidence. The Jewish custom of eating black-eyed peas appears to have originated amongst Egyptian Jews, who associated this legume with the Talmudic rubia. The American custom originated in the South, though the source is debated. Some say it symbolizes coins, and is consumed with leafy green vegetables, which symbolize paper money, as a ‘siman’ for a prosperous year. Others eat it together with ham-hocks or hog-jowls, which all of a sudden makes the head of a sheep sound delicious. Another theory says that General William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops thought black-eyed peas were animal food or weeds when they scorched the rest of the earth, so the Southerners were thankful for the black-eyed peas that New Year’s. Others say there wasn’t much else to eat. Another idea is that peas were good at replenishing the soil, so having peas one year was a good sign for the coming year’s prosperity. You can see all sorts of theories here.

The only idea that might connect the two is that the idea of black-eyed peas as good luck originated with African slaves, which would put the origin of the two customs on the same continent. And no explanation for these customs can make it taste good.

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