The Weekend Dish: Luck is best served with cornbread
The Weekend Dish
The year 2020 is barely one month old, yet it already feels like a year has passed. In between viral epidemics and political disintegration, we face increasingly tumultuous times.
On an individual level, there’s not much we can do to change things. As intractable as our problems seem, we must hold out hope more than ever.
The magic of the holiday season has faded along with many of our lofty resolutions and forgotten treadmills. Maybe we can have a do-over of the New Year in February and pretend that January never happened? Alas, if only life worked like that.
Goals and hard work do lead to success at any time of year. Still, sometimes luck plays its devious hand and reshuffles everything into chaos.
I don’t believe in luck until I do. Usually, I lament my lousy luck if things don’t work out or praise my good fortune if things do. I am skeptically superstitious, but I like to play with a full deck just in case.
When we feel out of control, and circumstances are impossible to change, we hope for a higher force or universal justice to intervene on our behalf. It sucks to feel powerless.
Many cultures around the world take luck and superstition very seriously at New Year. If specific protocols, prayers or food rituals aren’t followed correctly, then calamity could rain down on the unlucky souls for the rest of the year. If this is true, then 2020 needs all the help it can get.
Food has a central role in many of these beliefs. In my research for this column, I found some interesting themes.
For instance, many different nationalities from Italians to the Japanese, believe that pork is good luck. The saying “high on the hog” describes the most choice — and expensive — cuts of pork. Traditionally, the wealthy could only afford such cuts, while the peasants would eat cuts that were “low on the hog.” This is certainly not an auspicious time if you are a pig.
Some of the other common good luck food charms across the world include beans, collard greens, noodles and fried dough.
The Japanese cautiously slurp soba noodles for long life. The trick is to suck them up without breaking or chewing them. If you fail at this, the consequences could be dire.
Of course, for the French, Germans, and Italians, fortune can be found in fried dough and chocolate cake. And somewhat disturbingly, the Scandinavians believe that pickled herring is the secret to prosperity and bounty, while the Spanish eat 12 grapes to symbolize every toll of the clock at midnight.
Whether these foods are lucky or not, I’m all about eating them (except for the pickled fish). I don’t believe in luck, and I don’t want to take my chances, either.
You see, from an early age, I was indoctrinated in the mystical eating practices of the American South.
My grandmother, Janie Gerbaz, was raised in an extended family in Texas during the Great Depression. Her parents had many mouths to feed but no money. While many Americans suffered greatly during this era, my grandmother’s parents put her and her siblings to work on their farm. By raising their own food, they escaped the abject poverty that many others were experiencing.
My grandmother still recalls her mother’s nearly traditional home-cooked meal.
“It was hard work to raise chickens or churn our butter,” Gerbaz said. “But it was worth it. Mama was famous in the countryside for her fried chicken, cornbread, biscuits, gravy and green beans.”
But there was one special treat that my grandmother still makes every year around the New Year: Black-eyed peas for luck and prosperity. It doesn’t get more Texas than that.
Black-eyed peas, or “cowpeas,” have a rich history in the American South. They aren’t much to look at, and their original purpose was to feed grazing cattle. Still, they gained their reputation after helping to sustain yet another generation of struggling Americans.
Like so much of American folklore, the legend of lucky black-eyed peas is a tangled mess of our history. During the Civil War, the United States came undone, and its people suffered. Some stories claim that these unremarkable legumes fed a starving town after its food was pillaged. Other stories connect black-eyed peas to West Africa and the slaves who brought them to America.
The providence of this superstition is unclear, but it doesn’t really matter. Myths are often assembled from bits of truth, hope, and imagination. What matters is what these myths mean to us. Regardless of their origin, black-eyed peas became a symbol of survival and prosperity in the South and fed many generations of struggling Americans since. For them, hope became luck, and luck became survival and triumph over adversity.
When I asked my grandmother if she knew this history, she couldn’t really say with certainty. But she does clearly remember the ritual of making them with her mama.
“We grew black-eyed peas on the farm, so I never thought twice about eating them,” Gerbaz said. “Mama would always fuss over them for New Year’s, and she told us to eat them for prosperity. Always with cornbread.”
By themselves, black-eyed peas don’t have a strong flavor, but they absorb other flavors well. In classic southern tradition, the taste is usually added with pork, onions and pepper sauce. I like mine with a little curry and cinnamon for a more exotic flavor.
(Serves about four people)
1 pound black-eyed peas, dried
1 cup sausage or sausage alternative
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 sweet peppers, chopped
4 small tomatoes
6 cups water or stock
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
1 tablespoon curry
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons oregano
salt and pepper to taste
- Prepare beans per package instructions. Soak overnight for the best results.
- Add cooking to a large skillet and pre-heat to a medium-to-high setting. Add garlic and onion, and cook until lightly browned. Then add peppers, tomatoes, and sausage and continue to sauté until both sides are prepared, and tomatoes break down. Remove from heat and stir in seasoning.
- Combine vegetables, meat, water, and black-eyed peas in a large pot. Simmer on low for about two hours, or until mixture is cooked down to desired consistency.
Even if one month in 2020 feels like a year, and we feel powerless facing our problems, we must still hope and dream of a better future. Luck may be a coincidence, or perhaps fortune favors the bold. We must hold out hope while not forgetting the stories that make us. Let’s all eat a bowl of black-eyed peas while hoping for a prosperous future with a side of hot cornbread.
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