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Pass the Black-Eyes
December 25, 2002

On New Year’s Day I will take the wreath down from the front door, and smooth and fold the last stray pieces of tissue paper.  At our house, the Christmas tree will have been gone since the day after Christmas.  It lives in a pot on my front porch and comes in for only a day or two for its one string of lights and assortment of tiny balls.  One of these days, it’s going to get too big for the pot.  Then I will plant it in the yard, and we will begin again with a new tree.

            New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are cleaning-up days, change-of-pace days.  We’ll think about the old year, remember good old times and a few hard ones, then start promising ourselves to sign up for the aerobics class, read good books and floss our teeth twice a day. We’ll vow to get those pictures from summer vacation into an album, and answer all the folks who sent Christmas letters.

            We’ll watch lots of football and enjoy one last holiday meal.  Diets and resolutions will begin on the morning of January 2.

            When I was growing up, New Year’s Day meant black-eyed peas cooked with ham hock and small whole okra pods, served with my grandmother’s cornbread (or as near as my mother could come, but that’s a story for another day). Pork chops, cole slaw and the bowl games filled out the menu.  I can’t remember what we had for dessert; we probably were still working on the fruit cakes which, because they had been soaked in bourbon since Thanksgiving, were getting rather heady.  For some reason, my grandmother thought it was wicked to drink spirits, but quite all right to eat them.

              For years, my mother made the black-eyes from dried peas that she had soaked over night.  One story we heard was that the peas should be covered with running water exactly at midnight, that way good luck would soak right in.  Later she became daring and used frozen peas.  I don’t know where the okra idea came from.  Surely out on the farm where my dad grew up, okra was long gone by New Year’s Day. 

            Pork is another traditional New Year’s food around the world, but especially in the South.  We cooked our black-eyes with ham hock and ate pork chops, but for other Southerners, it’s pork jowl in the black-eyes and ham on the table. Many families will add some rice and spice and serve up Hoppin’ John.  Almost everyone will have greens.  Greens are naturally associated with money, and many families share collards or turnip greens rather than my family’s traditional cole slaw.

            Not everyone eats black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day—even in Bainbridge.   Charlie Powell, a long-time City Commissioner during the 1950s, refused them.  He told how one New Year’s Day during the Depression of the 1930s, his wife made black-eyed peas for dinner and the next year was the hardest one he ever lived through.  He wasn’t sure he would make it.  His daughter, Gloria Powell Coppinger, recalls that he would “eat black-eyes any day of the year, but never on New Year’s.”

            Most of us will be having the lucky fare as we welcome 2003.  Sometimes in the traditional menu, but sometimes with a new twist. This black-eyed pea concoction shows up often.  I once fixed a spicier version calling it Texas Caviar.  Television host Nathalie Dupree calls her milder recipe Mississippi Caviar.  I’ve tweaked the recipe for years.  Here is my final and favorite version for serving on New Year’s Eve or during the football games on the big day itself.

 

 

Decatur County Caviar

 

2 16-ounce cans black-eyed peas

4 scallions, green parts only, minced

1 or 2 seeded and minced jalapeno peppers

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro (or Italian parsley)

¼ cup drained and chopped pimentos

¼ cup fresh lime juice

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

½ cup olive oil

salt and black pepper to taste

 

            Drain the black-eyed peas and rinse well under running water.  Combine the peas, scallions, jalapenos, cilantro and pimentos and toss to mix.  Whisk the oil, lime and vinegar and pour over the black-eyed peas.  Season with salt and pepper.

            Put the mixture into a large glass jar or plastic container and marinate for three to five days.

          Serve with tortilla chips, with extra chopped jalapenos and Tabasco sauce on the side.

 

            Another traditional New Year’s food often found in the Low Country of North and South Carolina are benne (sesame seed) wafers.   Benne traces back to Africa and is part of the African-American tradition.  They can be spicy or sweet.    I serve the spicy wafers as an appetizer all year ‘round, but they are extra fun at New Year’s since they look like little gold coins.

 

Spicy Benne Cheese Wafers

 

½ cup sesame seeds

½ cup softened unsalted butter

2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 cup flour

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more if you like spicy)

½ teaspoon dry mustard (or substitute 2 teaspoons prepared mustard)

½ teaspoon salt

 

Preheat the oven to 350°.

Spread the sesame seeds on a baking sheet and bake for five minutes stirring occasionally until they are toasted golden but not brown.  Cool.

            Cream together the butter, cheese and Worcestershire sauce.  In a separate bowl combine the flour, spices and sesame seeds.  Gradually stir the flour mixture into the butter and cheese to make a stiff dough.  Knead until the dough is evenly blended.

            Pinch off small pieces of dough and roll into a small ball.  Place on an ungreased cookie sheet.  With the tines of a fork, make a crisscross pattern.

            Bake for 12 minutes or until crisp and brown.  When cool, store in an airtight container.

            The dough can be frozen as can the baked wafers.

 

 

Postscript—I wanted to prepare the Spicy Lentils from last week’s recipe recently.  The grocery store was out of lentils so I substituted split peas.  It’s just as good that way.  The next night I added chicken broth and leftover lamb (no vegetarian to dinner that night).  It made an excellent soup.


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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network