Jones County, NC – Perhaps you have heard or read about our quaint Southern custom of a special meal on New Year's Day. We fix big pots of collard greens, black eye peas, and corn bread hot from the oven to insure a lucky and prosperous New Year. I have seen in the newspaper the explanation that the peas are coins, the collards are folding money, and the cornbread is gold. I wonder if this was an after the fact surmise.
This celebration was part of my childhood in the Deep South, observed every year without fail and without discussion. It was just what people did on New Year's Day.
I took the tradition into my own family after I married, and my children have grown up eating their peas and collards and cornbread. I even introduced these foods to Long Islanders. One neighbor just couldn't see how this could be party food. She thought black eye peas tasted like dirt. Her remarks got me thinking, because New Year's Day is my favorite holiday and I always give a party,
Every year I gather old friends and new friends, and family around my table. It is always a wonderful time of open hearts and generosity of spirit. Some guests speak warmly about it for months. With this experience I don't think this celebration is just about wanting money, although of course every body wants money. The important clue is that this magical meal is never eaten alone.
Try to imagine how this tradition might have arisen. Think back to not so long ago, say to before World War II, when almost all Southerners -both black and white were very poor and often malnourished. They were dirt farmers or mill workers, and times were hard. Imagine you are facing t he bleak midwinter damp and cold and deciding to celebrate anyway: You are still here, and the new year is full of promise and hope of a clean slate. What is there to cook in January? There are only some dried peas and some corn meal in the pantry and some frost-kissed collards in the garden. But you have these humble ingredients peas, meal, greens, and with high spirits and good company they become a feast!
I think there is this deep meaning in black eye peas and corn bread and collards. So I will share my New Year's Day sermonette with you, because it is handy to keep in mind all year:
If you are not alone, if you have hot food and a warm welcome at the table, if you can make a feast in hard circumstances and still make merry with you friendly while sharing this simplest of food, then you are already lucky ---and rich. You know the secret. Love, sharing, and hope transform the basic fare into a feast, and everyone who shares it is blessed.
On New Year's Eve people sing Auld Lang Syne to toast the past and lost friends. But I prefer the second verse for New Year's Day because it reaches out to the here and now.
"And here's a hand, my trusty frien' /And gi'e me hand o' thine; /We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,/ For Auld Lang Syne."
There is no rule that you can only celebrate in January.