If you live anywhere in the southern United States chances are you did. You would be forgiven for mixing the edible vigna unguiculata with the 1995 hip-hop band of the same name made up of will.i.am and Fergie among others. Vigna unguiculata, more commonly known as the black-eyed pea or disparagingly as the cowpea, is a staple on many tables throughout the year and particularly at New Year.
The pea is a lowly legume with mighty powers. Tradition has the pea, a pasty ecru in colour with a splodge of black, symbolizing prosperity for those who dine on it because upon cooking it expands, hence the appeal of starting each year with a bowlful. The belief traces back a good few years to Mesopotamia in around 330 AD. From there both pea and purpose made their way to Africa and Asia, then the Americas.
In each country recipes have evolved to make the best of, to my mind, a fairly unexciting vegetable. From buñuelo, a fritter found in Colombia to daal in Pakistan and India to Hip Hoppin’ John in the States, all add various spices and other ingredients to enhance the flavour. The latter adds pork products such as hog jowl or ham hock which, tradition says, symbolizes positive acts because as we all know pigs forage forwards rather than backwards. If a dime is included in the dish then double the luck, and if green vegetables are also served then cups will be sure to overflow, the green representing the colour of money in these United States.
It was the Civil War that saw the cowpea elevated in status. Union troops made a habit of stripping the countryside of all edible crops either to feed themselves or to stop the Confederates from eating. Considering the cowpea fit only for livestock consumption, along with field corn, those crops were left alone and so the cowpea, with it’s high protein content and all eight essential amino acids as laid down by the FDA (Food & Drugs Administration) became fit for humans, though of course neither of those facts were known then.
So if you have not started your new year along these lines, I would urge you to take note of these words of wisdom from Neale Donald Walsch, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” and play a little Black-Eyed Peas while eating some Hip Hoppin’ John. Tradition and folklore will surely help you through 2013. Happy New Year!