Saturday, January 1, 2011

Black-Eyed Peas and New Year's Luck: Our Interconnected World

Back home last night after a looong flight from London to Atlanta to Little Rock, a flight made more anxious by the line of severe storms through which we had to fly on the last leg, storms that caused fatalities yesterday in Arkansas and Missouri.  I'm thankful to be home safe and sound, though unhappy to learn that the storms through which we flew caused several deaths.

Safe and sound, if a bit travel-bedraggled, and as always happens when we travel, the gods who watch over safe journeys have exacted their usual toll for bringing us home safe--on this trip, a little bag of homemade candies I carefully selected at an open-air booth at the Covent Garden market, to give to friends on our return, which are now nowhere to be found in our luggage.

And besides unpacking, I have an important task today: to cook our traditional new year's dish of black-eyed peas.  I can think of very few occasions on which I haven't eaten black-eyed peas on new year's day, because, well, one has to do so.  If one hopes to have any luck in the new year.

Why, I don't know.  Like the rule that cornbread must be made with white corn meal and must never contain sugar, it just is.  It just is this way and not that way.  The distinguished African-American food historian Jessica Harris, author of The Welcome Table, had a wonderful article about this a few days ago in the New York Times, in which she notes that black-eyed peas are one of many African contributions to the cuisine and culture of the Southern U.S.  As she notes, no one knows precisely how this legume came to be associated with new year's day and with good luck, but the association is venerable, and is found throughout the Southern states.

In coastal South Carolina and coastal Georgia, the peas are usually eaten in combination with rice, an important crop of that part of the South in the early period of American history, though now Arkansas grows more rice than any other state in the nation.  The dish of black-eyed peas and rice is called Hoppin' John in the areas in which it is customary.  Despite our rice-growing local culture (which is fairly recent, however, having begun when German farmers from the Midwest discovered that the rich but heavy soil of the Grand Prairie region of Arkansas could be cultivated to rice), we in Arkansas have long tended to eat our black-eyed peas with cornbread instead of rice.  

And usually with greens and/or cabbage, to which no luck customs have been attached of which I'm aware, though in my years in New Orleans, I found that New Orleanians recommend eating some greens or cabbage on new year's day, to keep money in one's pocket during the coming year.  And on one of the new year's days when I didn't eat black-eyed peas, I encountered a similar custom halfway around the world.

This was in northern Germany, where we spent new year's day with friends in Hamburg at their cabin by  the Baltic Sea in Öhe.  They cooked for us a traditional good luck dinner from their part of Germany--a savory pork roast (a kassler rippchen) with kale (grünkohl) and dumplings (in Steve's honor, they called these knödeln, the traditional name in Steve's Bavarian and Bohemian family branches, and not  klösse, the traditional north German term). According to our friends in Hamburg, the combination of pork and greens on new year's day is also associated with luck in their region--an interesting association, since Jessica Harris points out that the trinity of black-eyed peas, greens, and pork is also traditional in African-American cooking, particularly as a good-luck meal at new year's time.

I suppose it's not impossible to imagine that the African diaspora could have had an effect on the culture of a Hanseatic trading city as far north as Hamburg, since Hamburg has long been a melting-pot port city that has brought together cultures from many places in the world.  As a Hanseatic mercantile city, it also had its fingers in the slave trade, even if tenuously, and it had strong market ties to west Africa, from which many of the African slaves sent to the colonies came.  As a result, the city has long had a significant population of people of color, whose culture may well have influenced some aspects of the culture of Hamburg.

And so today, as we eat our black-eyed peas, greens, cornbread, and a bit of pork (hog jowl is traditional in my family, but I don't like its pasty greasiness at all, and so I substitute a bit of ham to cook with the pork), I'll be thinking of two happy new year's days spent with our friends in Hamburg, of our years in New Orleans, of the significant and often overlooked influence of African signatures on my own traditional Southern culture, and of Russian poet Yevgeny Vinokurov, who writes, 

Some time, I’d like to write a book  
A book all about time 
About how it doesn’t exist,   
How the past and the future    
Are one continuous present.    
I think that all people—those living, those who have lived 
And those who are still to live—are alive now.   
I should like to take that subject to pieces 
Like a soldier dismantling his rifle (as cited in John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos [NY: Vintage, 1984], p. 21).

And so as we eat our black-eyed peas, pork, greens, and cornbread today, I'll think about the interconnectedness of all people in the world, past, present, and future; about how none of is dispensable; about how we need each other to be whole; about how I am incomplete without you; about how who I am today depends radically on those who have gone before; about how my life will be continuous with that of those whose birth I don't live to see, insofar as I build towards the future here and now; about how immeasurably richer our world is due to cultural interchange; about the damage we do to ourselves and our world when we imagine that we can take the contributions of others for granted and when we assume that our culture and its perspective are normative and superior.

And about Maya Angelou, who writes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (NY: Random House, 1997) of the value of learning how and what other people eat and why they eat what they eat: “Through food we learned that there were other people in the world” (p. 207).

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