Writer’s Note: I am going to try a new column, not a story of “all sorts,” that will be the same, but I want to try to send you a food column, really a history story by a long time friend of mine who is no longer, but who for many years wrote in New York, in Europe, in China, about the Cherokee, and about everything, including food from the mountains of Western North Carolina. The writer is John Parris, who left his writing in New York, Washington, to come home to Western North Carolina to write about home. The first story I want to share with you happened just a few days ago.
New Year’s Fare
“Many a mountain-born family, stubbornly clinging to superstition and tradition, will sit down to a mess of black-eyed peas and hog fowl on New Year’s Day.
Nowhere is this antebellum custom observed more generally than here in the mountains where folks accept the miracles of modern times while holding staunchly to beliefs of the past.
To many a mountain-born family, the absence of black-eyed peas and hog jowl on the dinner table New Year’s Day would be a calamity, and whatever ill luck should befell them in the coming year will be laid to that omission.
These are folks who believe the only assurance of good health and good fortune during the coming year is a mess of black-eyed peas and hog jowl served up on New Year’s Day.
It’s a custom that has been practiced religiously in our family ever since my great-grandfather grooved together a can over in the hills of Macon County nearly 150 years ago.
His sons and daughters and their children’s children have kept the custom alive.
My grandfather, who lived to be almost a 100, held so firmly to the belief that he would have turned the house upside down if there wasn’t a mess of black-eyed peas and hog jowl on the table on New Year’s Day.
Grandpa argued that the price of a pound of black-eyed peas and hog jowl was the difference between having money the year round and an empty pocket.
When it came to the catalogue of superstitions he grew up with. Grandpa wasn’t one for taking the custom lightly.
He was a cautious man.
“There may be nothin’ to eatin’ black-eyed peas and hog jowl on New Year’s Day,” he said. “But again there may be a heap in it, I like to be on the safe side. Besides, black-eyed peas and hog’s jowl is mighty fine eatin’.”
Nobody knows when or where the black-eyed peas hog jowl custom originated. But one thing appears certain — it’s strictly Southern
My grandfather believed it may have risen among the slaves back in the days before the Civil War.
But that as it may, it’s a fact that those who served in Southern households from their birth were convinced that black-eyed peas and hog’s jowl on New Year’s Day pointed to good health, good luck and prosperity for the remainder of the year.
The custom spread among the superstitious, surviving through the years. It is perhaps more prevalent here in the mountains than any other section of the South.
Strangely enough, the custom is catching on with new generations. (It sure did that just four days ago according to this week’s publicity in central Kentucky.)
It’s even getting a boost from the grocery stores and supermarkets. They have got to taking to the air waves just after Christmas to call attention to the custom and tell folks where they can get black-eyed peas and hog’s jowl.
The idea of feasting on the first day of the new year to presage abundance for the remainder of the year is nothing new.
It was prevalent among the early settlers of the mountains who transplanted many European customs and traditions to American soil.
And the black-eyed peas and hog’s jowl superstition or tradition is just one of many handed down through the years that refuses to die.
One belief is if you have money in your pocket on New Year’s Day, you will have money all year.
Another is if you wear new clothes the day the new year is born, wearing apparel will be plentiful.
Some old-timers believe that the weather of the first 12 days of January foretells conditions for the coming months in that order.
Grandma always told me that if the preacher called on New Year’s day there would be luck for the family.
But she said it was unlucky if a woman or a widower was the first to call at the house on New Year’s Day. Folks of her day held that friendships made or renewed on the first day of the year would last throughout the 12 months.
They said, too, that some work should be on New Year’s Day.
They believed if you cleaned your chimney on the first day of the year that good luck would descend.
All the old folks burned cedar among the cattle on New Year’s day to make them more healthy during the coming year.
And there were those who argued that agreements made on New Year’s Day were more beneficial and more lasting than those made any other time during the year.
The old ones said bad luck was sure to follow if two persons kindled a fire together or washed their hands simultaneously on the first time of the year.
And they held that it was bad luck to rock an empty chair any time, but especially on New Year’s Day.
And they considered it unlucky for a dog to howl on New Year’s Day.
Another widely held belief was that empty cupboards on New Year’s Eve portended a year of poverty.
Most of these quaint superstitions and traditions have disappear from even the more remote mountain coves.
The only one still observed with any faithfulness is the black-eyed peas and hog jowl custom.
And at noon on the New Year’s Day in our house and in many another throughout the mountains the family will sit down to a mess of black-eyed peas and hog jowl.”
Joe Rhinehart can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.