Carmell Jackson serves black-eyed peas every day her restaurant is open. Even so, there’s one day at home that she could never be without them.
“It’s a New Year’s Day thing. You have to eat them on the first day of the year,” said Jackson, who owns and runs Melly Mell’s, a soul food-inspired restaurant at 313 W. Beltline Highway. “You can go over to someone’s house on New Year’s Day and if they don’t have black-eyed peas, it’s like they don’t have a Christmas tree.”
Eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s has long been an African-American and Southern tradition. It signifies luck or prosperity, one of several New Year’s foods that are associated with good fortune.
“It’s almost like a New Year’s resolution, but through food,” Jackson said.
It’s a culinary resolution more people seem to be making. With the migration of Southerners to the North, not to mention the proliferation of cooking TV shows and websites, making black-eyed peas for New Year’s has extended beyond the kitchens where the tradition had taken root.
Joe Salmons, co-director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at UW-Madison, brought his tradition here from the South. The native of North Carolina makes Hoppin’ John – black-eyed peas with rice – every New Year’s, as well as collard greens.
“I go back and forth between the real old-school ways or the hipper versions of things,” Salmons said.
He’s tried what he calls “fancier” versions but, “I’ve just come back to the old-fashioned classic Southern versions. I’ve stopped trying to fancy it up.”
For Bobbie Malone, who grew up in San Antonio, Texas and also lived in New Orleans before coming to Madison, New Year’s wouldn’t be New Year’s without black-eyed peas. They’re always part of a buffet that includes a recipe she loves for a spicy black-eyed pea dip and a recipe called Good luck cabbage slaw. Grocery shopping for her feast showed her that she’s not the only one in town doing this. Needing canned black-eyed peas to make the dip, she ended up lucky to get some.
“There was maybe one can,” she said. “One can in the whole store.”
Jackson noticed that last year when she went to the grocery store just before New Year’s and got the last two bags of black-eyed peas on the shelf.
“I thought, ‘What is going on? Do only black people do black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day?’” Jackson said. “Maybe not.”
It’s not even specifically an African-American tradition, said food historian and author Adrian Miller. He delves into this tradition in his book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” which was named by Kirkus Review as one of the top nonfiction books of 2013.
Miller said making black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day is a mingling of three traditions. First, he said, was one from West Africa, where black-eyed peas come from.
“A lot of West African religions, their deities have human qualities,” he said. “So the deities have favorite foods and for some of them their favorite food was black-eyed peas. So black-eyed peas were served on auspicious occasions, depending on the culture.”
The tradition of black-eyed peas being a special food came across the Atlantic with the slaves, Miller said. Also, he said, West Africans believed that the eye in the black-eyed pea helped ward off the evil eye.
From Western Europe, Miller said, came a belief that if you did something on the first of the year it would carry through for the rest of the year. One tradition, particularly among the Scottish, he said, was that the first person you see on the first day of the year should be a dark-haired person with dark eyes.
In addition, Miller said, Sephardic Jews around the world also consider them good luck and eat them on Rosh Hashana. In the Antebellum South, he said, there were large Jewish communities in Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.
“Nobody knows exactly how they came together,” Miller said of the different traditions surrounding black-eyed peas, “but you can see how they would.”
Salmons realized it wasn’t just a tradition from his native area when he was spending his first New Year’s away from the South while teaching at Purdue University in the 1980s. He found black-eyed peas at a local grocer, but struggled to find collard greens until he found some at a local co-op. There, he bumped into a colleague from Trinidad who also was making black-eyed peas and collard greens for New Year’s.
“He said, ‘You do this in America, too?’” Salmons said. “I said, ‘I’m from the South.’”
In Jackson’s family, black-eyed peas are just a dish that has been eaten every New Year’s Day. Her parents, Dorothea and Warren Lyerly, were married on New Year’s Eve and the family always had a party that night. Wafting around the anniversary party spread of prime rib, cheese, pies and cobblers was the smell of black-eyed peas cooking in the kitchen. But they were for the next day, no matter who might ask for them on New Year’s Eve.
“You know how there are different smells around the holidays?” Jackson said. “You’ll smell pine, you’ll smell different things and New Year’s Eve it was the black-eyed peas cooking.”
Jackson, who grew up in Madison, and her mother, who grew up in Michigan, say they’ve eaten black-eyed peas every New Year’s Day of their lives. They make them the way women in their family have made them going back at least as far as Dorothea’s great-grandmother in Texas.
It’s a tradition that’s staying alive in the family. When Jackson makes her New Year’s black-eyed peas, she gets a hand from her 7-year-old granddaughter LaMya Foy, who picks out the rocks and bad peas from the bag.
“What makes a family? Things like black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day,” Jackson said. “I can see her one day, with her little child picking the rocks out of the black-eyed peas. It’s tradition. You’ve got to keep it going.”