KJ: “So, basically, on New Year’s Eve every year, my mom does it in my house, but it’s a very common Black tradition, you make black eyed peas. It’s food, so you can put whatever you want in it, but the traditional thing is to put a ham hock in it, which is classic, Black food for holidays in general. At least my mom starts making them either the day before New Year’s Eve, or on New Year’s Eve, so it can marinate all day. You eat them on New Year’s Day, and it’s supposed to be good luck.”
The informant is a 19-year-old Black American college student from Montclair, New Jersey. She said that this tradition is common among Black Americans. KJ said that this food holds cultural significance not only because it’s traditional, but also because enslaved Black people ate it. Since black eyed peas and ham hocks were seen as undesirable foods, enslaved people were able to cook with and build a food culture around them. She said that Black people now consider these eating this dish good luck because it nourished enslaved people enduring oppression and violence.
In his essay about the globalization of and continued imperialist legacy within Indian cookbooks, Arjun Appadurai wrote that “Eating together, whether as a family, a caste, or a village, is a carefully conducted exercise in the reproduction of intimacy… Feasting is the great mark of social solidarity,” (Appadurai 10-11). As is the case for many ethnic and folk groups, food can be an important means by which Black people connect to each other and to their histories. Familiarity with certain foods or food traditions like eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day can spark recognition and community between individuals of similar backgrounds. Moreover, the food acts as a kind of tangible link to this group’s heritage.
Black American food traditions are specifically important because they symbolize the ethnic group’s history both of brutalization and of resilience. Enslaved people’s ability to transform the most undervalued ingredients, like ham hocks, into delicious food and common culture, which enslavers sought to strip Black people of, is a source of pride and an emblem of ancestral strength for Black people today. Many groups partake in good luck rituals on New Year’s Day. I think that this food is considered good luck because it nourished enslaved people through the horrors of oppression, so people hope it can sustain them through any hardships of the upcoming year.
Appadurai, Arjun. “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 30, no. 1, 1988, pp. 3–24., https://doi.org/10.1017/s0010417500015024.