My first New Year’s Day in New York City, I was panic struck: where was I going to find my annual dose of black-eyed peas? Not having any of the ingredients on hand and with all the stores closed, I was afraid I’d spend 1996 poor and unfortunate. Call me superstitious, but I reckon I need all the help I can get. So after much wandering around the Upper West Side, with only slice joints and the occasional Chinese take-out open for business, a friend suggested we go to Harlem.
But of course! Being new to the city, I hadn’t visited Harlem yet because it still had a bad reputation (that would, fortunately, soon be reversed). But if I didn’t have my black-eyed peas for wealth and luck, I was certain to be doomed. So we decided to take a chance and go to Sylvia’s.
Well, the first two taxis refused to take us there (because Harlem was considered dangerous—sheesh!) but once we finally arrived, all was well: Harlem wasn’t scary, Sylvia’s was warm and welcoming, and we all had our fill of slow-cooked black-eyed peas dripping with peppers and bacon. And I became a frequent visitor to Harlem’s excellent soul food restaurants—everything from church kitchens to the all-you-can-eat buffets with the diners and fine dining establishments thrown in for good measure. But I’m not here to talk about Harlem, I’m here to talk about black-eyed peas.
This southern staple has nourished me my whole life. My grandparents grow them on their farm and nary a dinner is complete without a heaping bowl of the legumes. Of course, I’m a bit biased when I say the black-eyed-peas from Chambersville, TX are the best, but there is something about terroir—it’s just as important for peas as it is for grapes. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to harvest any this year due to drought, but hopefully we’ll get a big haul next year. In the meantime, I can buy some at Whole Foods.
They’re not only healthy for both your body and the earth (the plants release nitrogen and some farmers plant them just to enrich the soil) but they’re tasty and versatile to cook with as well. You can serve them chilled with peppers in a dish called Texas caviar, you can form them into savory cakes, you can fry them up as croquettes or you can make a traditional hot pot flavored with bacon and onions.
So if you need that extra push of good fortune in 2007, consider eating some black-eyed peas on Monday. Do they work? I have no idea, but let’s just say, the one year I didn’t eat them on New Year’s Day I broke my wrist skiing. Ouch! Suffice to say, I never made that mistake again!
1 pound dried black-eyed peas
4 cups water
1/2 pound bacon, chopped
1/4 cup bacon drippings
1 large onion, chopped
14-ounce can diced tomatoes, such as Rotel, drained
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 jalapenos (pickled or fresh), chopped
2 teaspoons chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and pick over peas. In a large pot, mix peas with water and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
Add all other ingredients and simmer, covered, 1 to 1-1/2 hours or until peas are tender.
4 cups of cooked black-eyed peas (or 2 16-oz cans), drained and rinsed of all juice
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, green part only
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
3 canned or fresh jalapeño chiles, chopped
1 can Rotel tomatoes or 1 ripe, chopped tomato
3/4 cup olive oil
Juice from one lime
1 yellow bell pepper, finely chopped
3 cloves fresh garlic, pressed or minced
Mix everything together, chill for four hours. Serve with tortilla or corn chips.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings