SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) — Black-eyed peas and cabbage are a New Year’s Eve tradition across the American south, but these dishes with distinctly separate heritages are bound together because southerners chose to defy status quos that pre-date the formation of the United States.
More than six thousand years ago and half a world away from America, people began cultivating the ewa. This tiny pea came to symbolize the unclosing eyes of the Creator, and it was believed those who ate black-eyed peas would be filled with beauty and ancestral tradition.
Within a few thousand years, black-eyed peas crops were growing in the Mediterranean, South Asia, and Central Asia. But when the peas, once known for the beautiful symbology they represented in West Africa, reached Europe after the late Middle Ages, black-eyed peas were thought to be a food only fit for the lower echelons of society.
By the time the black-eyed pea reached the Americas, it was thought of as food fit only for livestock. John Newton, who wrote the poem behind the song Amazing Grace, would load his ship down with eight tons of rice and black-eyed peas when he transported 200 enslaved people at a time across the middle passage.
“I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me… that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shutters,” Newton later wrote.
Newton would become active in the fight for abolition. William Wilberforce, who introduced a “Bill for the Abolition of Slavery” to the British Parliament, was the nephew of Newton’s dear friend. And it was through the exhaustive efforts of Wilberforce, William Pitt, and others with similar mindsets that the bill passed through the House of Commons in 1804 and the House of Lords in 1807.
Today, the lyrics of Amazing Grace remind those who understand how difficult it was to change mindsets and abolish slavery in England through legislation.
“I was blind, but now I see,” wrote Newton when he penned Amazing Grace in 1772.
Newton wasn’t writing about peas in those lyrics. He was writing about a spiritual experience. Yet black-eyed peas, with their tiny and unclosing eyes, were still believed to be fodder for classism even after Newton helped to abolish slavery in both England and the United States. Society still had much to see.
It would take the hard work of people like George Washington Carver to change the stigma associated with the “cowpea” after the Civil War.
Of Celts and Cabbage
The Celts of Central and Western Europe likely first domesticated wild cabbage more than 3,000 years ago. But the Greeks took cabbages to a new level by the 3rd century, when they believed cabbage could treat the hangovers of moderate drinkers, ease sadness, and even predict the future.
But like black-eyed peas, cabbages also suffered from a significant publicity problem.
Lewis Carol, in his book Alice in Wonderland, jested with words when he wrote, “The time has come, the Walrus said, To talk of many things: Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax – Of cabbages – and kings – And why the sea is boiling hot – And whether pigs have wings.”
When Carol compared cabbages and kings, he was making quite a sociological statement.
Cabbages were considered a poor man’s food throughout much of Europe for hundreds of years. And despite ancient beliefs in the prophetic powers of cabbages, the plant did not predict its unfortunate fall from societal grace.
The poverty-stricken Irish latched onto cabbage during the Great Potato Famine and made St. Patrick’s Day into a celebration of cabbage, too. In Ireland and across other parts of the world, including the American South, cabbages are still served with bacon or corned beef.
But in the American South on one day of the year, cabbage is served with something else: black-eyed peas. The culinary pairing is eaten for good luck and health in the coming year.
In modern-day Louisiana, we don’t know the name of the first brave souls who decided to eat black-eyed peas or cabbages any more than we know the name of the first person who decided the crawfish might taste pretty good with cajun seasoning.
But we do know the New Year’s Eve tradition of southerners eating black-eyed peas and cabbage might just prove the United States is that great melting pot of a nation Teddy Roosevelt once believed us to be. And though some of Roosevelt’s opposition called for America to become a salad bowl instead of a melting pot, understanding the sociology of food in U.S. history indicates that the choice between the two has never been up to experts or politicians. When we sit at the same table with others and are open to the sharing of both dialogue and dinner, we are rewarded by new traditions that will soon feel like old.
Six thousand years ago, humans were still foraging, still leaning into the idea that new foods were out there on the horizon. It was an age of discovery unlike what we’re accustomed to in this modern world.
Those who chose to domesticate cabbages and black-eyed peas were doing so to improve their lives. And though mankind’s not so much into hunting and gathering these days, there are still plenty of new foods on the horizon for humanity. All we have to do to discover them is to open our hearts to other cultures and share.