On New Year’s Day, Black American families around the country will sit down to eat a variation on green vegetables and cowpeas, joining in an enduring tradition meant to usher in opportunity in the year ahead.
“I don’t let a New Year’s Day go by without having some form of greens, pork and black-eyed peas,” food historian Jessica Harris said.
The choice of greens, usually cooked with pork for flavor, comes from the perception among Black Americans that folded collard greens look like paper money, said Adrian Miller, an author and food scholar. Eating greens on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day is believed to bring about greater financial prosperity. The peas promise good luck, health and abundance.
But although these rituals have become largely associated with the American South, their roots can be traced back to the meeting of West African and European traditions, Miller said. Collard greens, for instance, originated in Northern Europe.
“Collards is a corruption of colewort — colewort is any nonheading cabbage,” said Harris, author of “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America.” “They became part of the foodways of African Americans. The Africanism is in the cooking of them — not in the green itself. That cooking method of long, low and slow, and with the potlikker being consumed, is a very different thing.”
And celebrating on the first day of the year is more of a global tradition, Miller said. In Italy, for example, lentils — said to resemble coins — are cooked down with pork and served for luck. In West Africa, he added, “there were certainly auspicious days. But this idea that the first day of the calendar year — and doing something on that day — would bring good luck, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist in West African societies prior to European contact.”
West African spiritual practices often revolved around deities who had favorite foods such as black-eyed peas, which are native to the continent. The forced migration of enslaved Africans to North America and their interactions with European colonists led to a convergence of customs.
“It’s all kind of messy,” Miller said, “but you can see this process of cultural diffusion, borrowing, appropriation, all of those things that were happening in previous centuries, to the point where it coalesces into the tradition we have now.”
Geography also played a role in the variety of interpretations that emerged. In regions of the country influenced by the British, collards or kale might be served on New Year’s Day, while in states such as Louisiana, where there was a stronger German influence, people often enjoyed cabbage. As white Americans looking to take on a wholly American identity began to reject European customs, Black people found ways to transform those customs.
“When people abandon superstitions because they just seem antiquated, that creates a space for new associations to emerge,” Miller said.
Black and Southern traditions eventually became inextricable. The first documented Black New Year’s celebration is recounted in Toni Tipton-Martin’s “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking.” In the book, she shares the origins of Watch Night, when Black Americans congregate at church for song, praise and prayer before the stroke of midnight. During the first such event, on Dec. 31, 1862 — or Freedom’s Eve — enslaved people in the South Carolina Lowcountry gathered in churches to await news of their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation, which was to be signed on New Year’s Day 1863. Their celebrations included a menu of Hoppin’ John, collard greens with hog jowls, and ribs.
“My point in publishing these stories in ‘Jubilee’ was to be able to tell a broader story about African Americans and New Year’s Eve,” Tipton-Martin said. “This allows you to see strains of African tradition in things we think about as classic America.”
The blurring of what Tipton-Martin calls “good-luck food traditions” can lead to erasure.
Amethyst Ganaway, a Lowcountry chef and writer, notes that people often refer to black-eyed peas and rice and Hoppin’ John interchangeably. Both make appearances on Black American tables, but Hoppin’ John is a one-pot meal of rice and field peas — a variety of cowpea largely available only in the Lowcountry. It is also a bit lighter and redder, and has a creamier consistency, than its black-eyed cousin.
“It’s important to make that distinction, because it’s really the origins of those traditions get lost,” Ganaway said. “So many people think that Gullah Lowcountry traditions and people are dying off. No. We’re here.” She added, “It actually starts here, and it’s important to remember that it starts here for a reason, so our identity, our foodways aren’t being erased and turned into this mainstream thing.”
Although New Year’s culinary traditions persist across the South, Frederick Opie, a professor of history and foodways at Babson College in Massachusetts, noted that they can take on particular significance for Black Americans.
“Is there a correlation between a society or a culture that has experienced a larger-than-usual sense of being oppressed and marginalized, and that the hope for the next year means possibly experiencing something better? I suspect that there is,” he said.
How people celebrate the New Year is also essential to bringing in good will. Harris hosted parties for nearly two decades in the 1980s and ’90s, serving a good-luck menu to as many as 70 guests in her Brooklyn home.
“It was a grand thing to do, and I very much enjoyed doing it,” she said.
Black Americans have found celebration in other foods, too. JJ Johnson, chef and owner of Fieldtrip in New York, takes guidance from his grandmother, a North Carolina native, when he prepares her seafood gumbo — with a few alterations — on New Year’s Eve.
“I was taught that if you were eating good going into the new year, then you would be good, and you will be healthy,” Johnson said. “For me, a gumbo like this represents family, luxury and joy.”
Although the menus may vary, the purpose is the same.
The tradition has “lived on because it’s fun, and it speaks to aspiration,” Miller said. “You always hope that no matter what your condition is, that there’s always a brighter future.”
Recipe: Seafood Gumbo
By Kayla Stewart
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
For the gumbo spice mix:
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon powdered bay leaf (see Tip 1)
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne, or more to taste
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
For the seafood gumbo:
4 tablespoons salted butter
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 small onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 small celery stalk, finely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup dried shrimp (optional; see Tip 2)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
5 cups store-bought or homemade chicken stock
4 ounces fresh or thawed frozen okra, sliced into rounds (1 cup)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 lobster tails, shelled and cut into 3/4-inch pieces (optional; see Tip 3)
1/4 pound picked crab meat
1/4 pound sea scallops
1/2 pound medium shrimp
Kosher salt and black pepper
4 cups cooked jasmine rice, for serving
1. Make the spice mix: Place all ingredients in a bowl and stir until combined. Set aside 2 tablespoons to add to the gumbo and reserve the rest for another use in an airtight container.
2. Make the gumbo: In a heavy 4- to 5-quart pot, heat the butter and oil over medium heat. Once the butter begins to bubble slightly, add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula to form a smooth paste.
3. Cook the mixture, stirring continuously, for 10 to 13 minutes to make a chocolate-colored roux. Make sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pot to avoid burning. It is important to keep a very close eye on the roux during this step. The roux can go from a nutty color and aroma to burnt beyond repair in a matter of minutes. Lower the heat as needed.
4. Immediately add the onion, garlic, celery, bell pepper and tomatoes and stir well. The vegetables will stop the roux from overcooking and burning. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables start to stick to the pan, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the dried shrimp, if using, tomato paste and 2 tablespoons spice mix and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes.
5. While whisking, slowly add the stock and whisk until the stock is completely blended with the roux and vegetable mixture. Add the okra, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce and let simmer for 50 minutes over very low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Add the lobster, crab, scallops and shrimp and simmer just until cooked through, about 10 minutes more.
6. Season the gumbo to taste with salt and pepper and serve over rice.
1. To make powdered bay leaf, finely grind dried bay leaves in a spice grinder. If you don’t have a spice grinder, you can omit this from the spice mix and add 4 dried bay leaves to the gumbo when simmering.
2. Whole dried shrimp can be found in most Asian markets and online. Look for ones that are pink or orange and plump and firm.
3. If you don’t want to use lobster tail, you can use an additional 1/2 pound shrimp instead.
And to Drink …
If you are preparing this seafood gumbo as a New Year’s celebration and want to stick with sparkling wine throughout the meal, why not? This gumbo should go beautifully with sparklers, whether Champagne or the many others that come from around the world. You could also pair this with many different white wines, such as riesling (dry or moderately sweet), albariño, various chardonnays, Loire Valley sauvignon blancs, chenin blancs or even white Bordeaux, so long as they are well balanced and not oaky. I would consider many dry Italian whites. The spicier the gumbo, the better a slightly sweet wine will be, such as a kabinett or spätlese riesling or a demi-sec Vouvray. I wouldn’t pick a red, but if you insist, look for something fresh and light, such as a Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages. — ERIC ASIMOV