Saturday is New Years Day, which means it is time for my people to eat black eyed peas and collards. For luck, you know. And growing up in and shaped by the hills of North Mississippi, and loved and fed by people who were children of the Depression and grandchildren of Reconstruction, we ate simple food, and the food of our celebrations was also simple, although given a bit more time and intention.
Now, all food is regional and cultural. And I know up North it’s corned beef and cabbage, and in the Low Country of the East Coast they eat Hopping John, but this is what my people eat for luck. That we live in a historically and persistently economically depressed area that has been perennially unlucky is not lost on me, but what are you going to do?
SoI don’t know that eating black eyed peas is actually lucky. But I do know that I love them, and will make any excuse to eat them. And besides – if we engage in pleasure when times are hard, isn’t that a sort of making your own luck? While my parents were not big eaters of greens, the old people who cared for me were, and so eating greens reminds me of happy times and the purest love I have ever known, so I make a spot for them, too.
If we want to keep traditions alive, we have to make room for them. And any tradition that involves sitting down to a meal, made with care and love, that marks the entry point into a new time of with hope and intention is a thing worth preserving.
So on New Years, we eat Black Eyed Peas and Collards.
Black eyed peas aren’t peas. They’re beans, and they have to be cooked like beans. In fact, you can cook them just like pintos and have a fully acceptable dish. But you can elevate it a bit, too. And since this is New Years after all, I tend to fancy it up. The collards are an accommodation because I’m the only person in my house that likes them, and so cooking up a large pot doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Now, doing it this way makes enough for 12 polite folks or eight hungry ones. But it halves perfectly if don’t have a lot of people to feed.
What you need:
To do this traditionally, you need the ham bone leftover from your Christmas ham with about two pounds of meat. If you didn’t save leftovers and the bones from your Christmas ham, you can (and should) buy in two pounds of smoked ham hock, or if you find yourself in a part of the world where you can’t easily buy ham hock, dice up a couple of pounds of bacon.
Two pounds of dried black eyed peas. The thing about black eyed peas is, they’re beans. So you should soak them, but you don’t have to. They don’t need a lot of soaking, and some folk don’t soak black eyed peas at all. But I generally soak mine for a couple of hours. Just spread them out on a cookie sheet, sort through them for dirt and debris, then put them in a stockpot with enough cold water to cover them by about two inches.
Salt. People get fancy with their salt these days, but I use kosher salt to cook with and iodized salt for the table. You do you – salt is salt, and best done to taste anyway.
A large onion, as big as your fist.
Cloves. You only need a couple, so see if you can borrow some from a neighbor, but if not, buy the smallest container you can. You want whole cloves here, and you might have bought some for the Christmas ham.
A bay leaf. I feel like this can be left out, but I love this dish so much I’m afraid to try subtracting things.
Ground black pepper. Just like you have in the pepper shaker.
Allspice. This is something I picked up a few years ago and I love the depth it adds to the dish. I doubt my ancestors would have tried this, but I recommend it.
Four nice sized garlic cloves. Honestly, the four is a guesstimate. I mean, I would use at least four, but sometimes the spirit catches me and I might go as high as six or seven. I do love some garlic.
Crushed red pepper
Two bunches of collard greens. My people would just say “a mess of collards”, but I’m assuming you are going to the store, and they will look at you funny if you ask for that. The stores tend to sell them in 1 pound bunches, and you need about two pounds of greens. Also, if you are two good to eat collard greens, get over yourself. Kale and Collards are practically siblings and are both just unheaded cabbage. If you can’t get collards, you can use kale for this, because they are so similar. But collards is traditional, and if you are too snooty to eat them and end up unlucky this year because you did it wrong, don’t come crying to me.
What you do
Drain your peas and put them back in the stockpot. Dice up your meat (including the skin and fat) into pieces about an inch or two in size, and add them and the bone to the pot. If you are using the bone (and you should) don’t worry about cleaning it off – the meat will fall off it as it cooks. Some folk are panicking over the mention of ham skin here, but trust me on this – it will melt and meld into something approaching heaven before we are done. Put in enough cold water to cover the beans about two inches and set the heat as high as it will go.
While you are waiting for it to boil, peel your onion and stick 2 cloves in it. Cloves are pointy, and you can just push them into the onion like thumbtacks. You will remove the onion later, and this makes it easier, but I have also just tossed the cloves in the pot and sliced the onion fine and left it in and that works too. It’s largely a matter of opinion, and this way involves less chopping and tears. Add the onion, ½ a teaspoon of allspice, ½ a teaspoon of the black pepper, the bayleaf, and a teaspoon of salt to the water and bring it to a boil. We will probably be adding more salt later, but depending on what meat you used, it may already be salty, and too much salt will ruin a dish.
After it comes to a boil, turn your heat down and let it simmer. Stir them every 10 or 15 minutes, just as you pass through the kitchen, and check your water levels at the same time. The water will cook away, so keep adding water to always keep at least an inch of water over the peas.
Cooking times will vary depending on how fresh the peas are, and how your stove cooks, but after about an hour and a half, start checking to see if the peas are tender. They generally take me about two hours to be right. They are done when a pea will mash evenly between your fingers. If nobody’s looking, you can taste it – they shouldn’t be crunchy, but firm. Nobody wants mushy peas. The broth will be rich and dark, and should be tasted at this point for salt – I often put about another two teaspoons in here, but go by taste, adding a bit and stirring a bit and tasting as you go.
Remove the bone and the onion, if you left it whole, and discard after picking the bone clean.
About an hour and a half into the beans cooking, it’s time to make the collards. Rinse them off, and cut out the big pieces of stem and discard. Take the leaves and roll them like cigars and then slice into one-inch-wide strips. Shake the water off them, but don’t dry them in a salad spinner or anything – they need some moisture to cook. Peel and mince your garlic now as well.
In a big (at least 10 inch, but 12 is better) skillet, add your vegetable oil and coat the bottom of the skillet with it, turning the skillet one way and another. Then put it over high heat and watch the oil – when it turns wavy it’s time to cook.
Add your garlic and a ½ teaspoon of crushed red pepper to the oil and sauté it around, letting it sizzle – but don’t let it brown. After 30 seconds or so, when it smells amazing, add in the collard greens and stir them around in the oil, so they get coated. I sprinkle about a ¼ teaspoon of salt on them now, and then add a cup of water, stirring the greens around in it. This will begin to wilt the greens, which is what we are going for. Turn the heat down to medium and then put a lid on the skillet, leaving it slightly cracked so steam can escape. Let it cook for about 20 minutes, softening the greens, but not disintegrating them.
To plate it up, I put the black eyed peas and meat in a bowl with lots of broth, and then scatter the greens over the top, but this is controversial. Some folks prefer them served on a plate, drained, with the collards to the side. Either way, I would serve some cornbread, usually made in muffins because we are celebrating, alongside this, with some pepper sauce on the table.
I’m wishing you lots of luck and joy and wonderful meals this coming year, friends.
Happy New Year!