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 the new year, 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!
Big pot of black-eyed peas
- 1/2 pound bacon, chopped
- 3 jalapeños, seeded and diced
- 1 medium-yellow onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 pound dried black-eyed peas
- 6 cups water
- 1 (10-ounce) can tomatoes with green chiles and its juices
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
In a large pot, cook the bacon on medium low heat, turning once, for 10 minutes or just until some of the fat has rendered. With a slotted spatula, remove the bacon and place on a paper-lined plate. Leaving on the heat, add the onion and jalapeños to the pot and cook while stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 more seconds.
Add to the pot the black-eyed peas, cooked bacon, water, Ro-Tol tomatoes, chili powder, salt, and pepper. Bring the pot to a boil then turn the heat down to low, cover the pot, and simmer for 1 hour. After this time, remove the lid and continue to cook on low until peas are tender, about another hour. Add more water if the level appears to get too low. Taste and adjust seasonings, and serve warm.