The Symbolic Reason Black-Eyed Peas Are Eaten On New Year's Day

Many cultures celebrate the greeting of a new year with a special meal or foods that represent the dreams and wishes for the coming months. Cubans dine on roasted pork while Spaniards pop grapes into their mouth to welcome the new year. In the southern United States, the symbolic food of choice to grace the dining room table for New Year's celebrations is a bowl of black-eyed peas. 

Black-eyed peas are enjoyed by people around the world, per The Spruce Eats, but likely originated in West Africa. It's believed that black-eyed peas were brought to the West Indies with slaves in the 17th century (via WebMD). A variety of bean, black-eyed peas are also called cowpeas or goat peas and are an off-white color with black markings.

In the United States, black-eyed peas are an important component of soul food cuisine, along with other vegetables of African origin (sweet potatoes, mustard greens, and cabbage), according to Britannica. Soul food was developed in the South after African American slaves were freed and combined the rations they were able to eat while enslaved with new ingredients that they now had access to. 

When you have little to eat, black-eyed peas are a good item to have, per WebMD, because they contain plenty of fiber, protein, and other nutrients to fuel a person's body. While they're a healthy ingredient, black-eyed peas carry much more symbolism when they are eaten to celebrate the new year.

Good fortune in the new year

Black-eyed peas are part of many people's New Year's celebrations because they are believed to bring good luck or more money in the coming year, according to Allrecipes. It's not clear exactly why black-eyed peas are associated with money, but one theory is that they get bigger when cooked, which could represent increased wealth. There's another story that recounts how slaves ate black-eyed peas to celebrate the day the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect — January 1, 1863. They picked black-eyed peas, according to the story, because it was the only food they had, but the tradition has continued throughout the years.

Chattanooga Times Free Press shares a different reason: Black-eyed peas are inexpensive and unpretentious, so when you eat them at the start of the new year, there will be increased wealth in the coming months. There's also the added bonus of the great way they make the house smell when simmered with seasonings. A common way to incorporate black-eyed peas into the celebration is with a recipe called Hoppin' John, per Southern Living, which includes bacon, green bell pepper, garlic, thyme, and cayenne pepper. Hoppin' John is often served alongside collard greens, which represent paper money, and cornbread symbolizes gold.

So whether you hope for more money and good luck in the new year, or simply want to eat something delicious, cook up some black-eyed peas.