In the traditional Southern family, certain things are always constant. Roses are given on Mother’s Day, barbecue is enjoyed on the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving is celebrated with a homecoming, Jack Daniel’s is enjoyed while watching football, church service is attended on Christmas Eve, and special food is prepared on New Year’s Day.
Richard Lewis, originally from Mississippi and a graduate of LSU, has now made Virginia his home. As a transplant, he has become intimately familiar with the preferences of Southern cuisine, much like a country preacher knows the Holy Scriptures. With New Year’s Day fast approaching, Richard’s knowledge and expertise on Southern dining traditions are incredibly insightful.
According to him, the New Year’s Day dinner is often overlooked and underrated among traditional holiday feasts in the South. He emphasized that this meal is actually the most important one of the year, as it is believed to bring good luck, good fortune, and good health to those who partake in it for the next 12 months.
The New Year’s luck-o-matic menu comprises three essential dishes: black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread. These Southern delicacies not only offer rich flavors but also carry deep symbolism. Traditionally, black-eyed peas represent coins, while the vibrant collard greens symbolize cash. Lastly, the golden cornbread stands for wealth. As the saying goes, money may not grow on trees, but it certainly flourishes on vines and stalks on New Year’s Day in the South.
According to Lewis, a retired Virginia tourism executive, the popularity of the three main New Year’s dishes in the South can be attributed to poverty. He explains that the peas became a staple of the rural diet because they could be grown in poor soil. In the coastal regions of the Carolinas and Georgia, peas were often cooked with rice, vegetables, and seasoned with pork, creating a dish known as Hoppin’ John, which continues to be a favorite for New Year’s celebrations.
According to Lewis, collards should not be underestimated. They can be grown either in a truck patch for market or in the kitchen garden. When seasoned with a smokey ham hock, this dish is filled with delicious pork flavor and has gained popularity in both backwoods cabins and some of the South’s finest restaurants.
According to Lewis, a perfect match for peas and greens is a delicious Southern coarse-ground cornbread, not the sugary and cake-like kind found elsewhere. She suggests that if you need something to soak up the flavors of Hoppin’ John, Martha White has been a trusted brand for over a century. And there’s nothing quite like crumbling cornbread into a bowl of collard greens pot liquor to enhance the flavors even further.
Richard Lewis shared some interesting customs with me. He mentioned that in certain households, coins, usually dimes, are placed in the peas while they’re being cooked. Some families take it to the next level by adding lots of small change to the pot of peas. However, those who eagerly search for the coins should be ready to eat all the peas that come up alongside them. It’s a requirement, otherwise the coins go back into the pot.
On New Year’s Day, Richard Lewis suggests a unique way to bring good luck for the year ahead. He recommends rubbing a magical cast-iron pot that contains a genie named Bubba. By doing so, one can expect a year filled with good fortune. To further enhance the chances of luck, he advises indulging in a hearty meal and going fishing. Additionally, buying lottery tickets is seen as a guaranteed way to increase one’s chances of financial success. Following these rituals is believed to be a foolproof method to ensure a prosperous year.
Happy New Year!