The Dish with Deah: New Year’s food traditions founded on promises of freedom

dfwnewsa | January 3, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

The Dish with Deah: New Year’s food traditions founded on promises of freedom

Black eyed peas
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The tradition of Watch Night, a cherished New Year’s Eve church service among many holds special significance for Black Americans. Perhaps less known is that the day forged a tasty Southern superstition that connects iconic traditions to the historic origins of the celebrated church commemoration. 

Dec. 31, 1862, a night known as Freedom’s Eve was the start of this spiritual celebration. June 19, 1865, became the date of Texas’ emancipation, but in Virginia, South Carolina and other Southern states, news of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had spread — many anticipated Jan. 1, 1863, as the official first day of their freedom. 

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Crowds secretly gathered in the sanctuaries of their Lowcountry churches, creating an atmosphere thick with hope and the promise of a new era. As the clock neared midnight, congregations bound by the chains of slavery but united in spirit awaited the stroke that would mark the dawn of a new chapter in their lives. 

Amidst the spiritual and emotional fervor, the celebratory atmosphere extended to the menu for the momentous occasion. The featured historic dishes continue to offer symbolic messages of hope and resilience today.

Dish with Deah

For more about Deah Mitchell or the Dish with Deah columns, click here.

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Hoppin’ John, a dish that traditionally used field peas — a type of cowpea that is not the variety of black-eyed peas eaten today — is woven into the fabric of the New Year’s Eve tradition. This popular Lowcountry dish took its place alongside collard greens dotted with fatty studs of hog jowls.

In today’s Southern kitchens, these traditional foods are representative of prosperity: Black-eyed peas represent a promise of expanding wealth; collard greens signify paper money; and the richness of pork fat, the often forgotten third member of this New Year trinity. Eaten together, the three foods are said to guarantee a year of wealth. Although the tradition of eating these foods predates emancipation, 1862 is the first time we see the foods recorded as tied to a specific day of celebration. 

For those not native to the region but seeking a bit of luck in these economic times, understanding the background of this dish and other auspicious foods is worthwhile. 

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Different families have their own traditions when it comes to black-eyed pea dishes, resulting in a variety of preparations and combinations. If you hail from the South, chances are you’ve welcomed the New Year with a healthy heaping of black-eyed peas. 

But nothing says you can’t eat Hoppin’ John all month, along with collards and your favorite pork dish, to keep the luck coming — and the storied history of the dish alive. 

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