Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Superstitions & New Year’s Lunch


The Question: Why do we eat cabbage and black-eyed peas on New Year?
My Louisiana family with roots across the state can’t pin down the tradition.

In the South, black-eyed peas and cabbage are a New Year’s tradition.  On New Year’s Day, most families eat the beans for luck and the greens for money. But, no one in my family seems to know why …

I did some googling and only found some unofficial guesses that the dish possibly dates back to the Civil War … maybe?

My mom, dad, boyfriend, sister, brother-in-law and I sat at my parents’ kitchen table discussing the custom on New Year’s Day.  We all have roots in different parts of the state (New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lake Charles), but we all ate greens and beans.

So, it wasn’t specific to New Orleans culture, right?

My dad said he didn’t think he had the dish as a kid, my mom told him he was crazy and we decided to call his sister, my Aunt Kathleen in Lafayette.

My dad asked her over the phone if they ate black-eyed peas and cabbage on New Year’s and I could hear her on the other end say “For sure!”  (As a kid, I called her Aunt Caffeine, an appropriate nickname for my fun, candid aunt who still has big sister powers over my dad).

He put me on the phone. Aunt Kathleen explained that black-eyed peas and cabbage were foods you “had to have” on New Year’s.  They represented luck and money, and no one wanted “to miss out on either.”

She said my Great-Grandma Gerdes made the New Year’s feast, and the dining room set she served it on is the same one we use for Christmas dinner today at Aunt Kathleen’s.

My adorable big sister Julie, recently married, the day she got engaged.  And a close-up of the ring. Julie's husband Andrew had to reconstruct the band, but he kept the original diamond and floral theme. She got engaged two-months before Kate Middleton but they both wore wrap dresses to make the big announcement. 
The only other things I know about Grandma Gerdes are the following: she looked like my dad in a dress (I need to find that picture), she was feisty, my sister’s engagement ring was hers, she smoked cigarettes like a chimney, got egg shells in her pecan pie and had a pretty morbid catchphrase, “This world, the next and then the fireworks.” 

I asked my dad what it meant and he laughed and said, “I don’t know. Everything just gets worse?”

The conversation continued the next day in Hammond at my uncle’s house. Here, my 91-year-old Gammie said her Grandma Meyer made it for her as a girl in New Orleans.  Gammie said during her childhood everyone was superstitious and that’s why her family ate the black-eyed peas and cabbage.  She remembered her great-uncles and uncles (she lived with about seven uncles during the depression, more stories on that later) also banned sweeping after dark, because it was bad luck. 

The little girl in this picture from ~1889 is my great-great-grandmother (with my great-great-great-grandparents, The Ortets); she was later known to my Gammie as Grandma Meyer. Her superstitious brothers are also pictured, with Uncle Ham on the stool. Ham would grow up to own a popular speak-easy turned bar where Fats Domino got his start ... but that's another story.
And many people in New Orleans still see it as bad luck.  My friend Amanda, a New Orleans native, moved into a new place in August 2010.  Her mom forbade her from buying a broom because it was bad luck to buy one in the month of August.  Her mother reminded her of a relative who bought a broom in August 2005 … Amanda broke a glass one morning that month and called her mom to tell her what a hindrance this whole no-broom thing was becoming.  Her mother told her not to move and drove across the city with her own broom to sweep Amanda’s apartment.

A lot of New Orleanians may not be superstitious, but they are a littlestitious.  They eat black-eyed peas, sweep in the daylight and don’t eat oysters in a month without an “r” (there may actually be a science behind that).  No, it’s not voodoo, it’s just fun.

But, where the heck do the black-eyed peas and cabbage come from?

If you know, please email me at carolinecgerdes@carolinegerdes.com!

The Dish in Question: Black-Eyed Peas and Cabbage
This year, I couldn’t get enough lunch. But as a picky kid, my dad made me eat my age in beans.

Corned beef, cabbage, black-eyed peas over rice and garlic bread.
My dad (Bob) serves this lunch with corned beef, which is not traditional to New Year’s, but St. Patrick’s Day. Corned beef and cabbage is a St. Patty’s institution, but it just kind of gets lumped in with New Year’s cabbage.  I’ll save the corned beef recipe for March.  So, let’s talk cabbage …

This year, the cabbage came from my dad’s garden, which he says is “on the assault.” The assailant: rabbits. 

The bunnies are so well fed from his greens, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower that they can no longer fit through his wire fence. 

He’s not quite Bill Murray in Caddyshack … yet.  But, he has set up a critter cam as it’s “about time for another litter.”

Preparing the Cabbage, according to Bob:
Cut the cabbage up”
Use a small amount of ham or sausage to grease the pan
Stir in cabbage and add a cup of hot water
Add Tony’s, or creole seasoning  (But seriously, if you don’t know Tony, befriend him)
Let it cook for a couple of hours (What can I say, Bob is brief)

The Beans, according to Bob: 
Prepare pork, tasso, sausage or ham (or as Bob suggests “any combo there of”)
Cook it down with onions
Then you add black-eyed peas
Let them cook for 2-3 hours
Add the holy trinity: salt, pepper and Tony’s
Serve over white rice


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