Eating black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s reminds me of my grandmother's kitchen in Florida, filled with the smell of black-eyed peas and collard greens simmering with onions, garlic and a little smoked pork. The meal was always rounded out with fresh ground cornbread or muffins and baked sweet potatoes. Vegetarians don’t despair Jessica Kellner at Mother Earth has you covered with some great Meatless Monday recipes for good luck. Every year since I have had my own garden I include as many of these easy to grow southern staples as space allows into my garden plans and you can, too.
Let’s start with black-eyed peas, aka crowder peas, southern peas, field peas and other related members of the species Vigna unguiculata. According to tradition and author Cindy Conner these are real survival foods. Many people trace the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to Sherman’s destructive march through the South. These peas were considered only fit for animal fodder and so spared to sustain book black and white southerners through the hard months that followed. A Jewish friend of mine says the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s goes much further back to the Talmud. According to her relatives, whose Sephardic Jewish ancestors settled around Savannah in the early 1800s, the practice was already common long before the Civil War.
Whether you know them as southern peas, cowpeas, field peas or black-eyed peas, they are delicious and easy to grow wherever there are 60-90 days of warm weather both day and night. Vining varieties like Big Red Ripper are extremely drought tolerant but need more room to spread out. The ability of southern peas to grow in poor soil is so good that some varieties like Iron and Clay are best known as a soil building cover crop. Early varieties like Queen Ann Blackeye Pea can be grown in more northern states. Carol Deppe has even selected a small lady pea, Fast Lady Northern Southern Pea, that will mature in the cool summers of the Pacific Northwest.
Greens are the traditional companion dish to southern peas. My grandmother loved collard greens, the old timey varieties that turned blue-purple in the winter when the leaves are sweetest. We also sometimes sometimes had Southern Giant mustards or Seven Top turnips or just mixed greens from the large patch she would sow in late summer or early fall as the summer heat began to ease. As a seed saver, I have tried a lot of different greens but the variegated collard that goes from being just green to dappled with white variegations is one of the most interesting. It becomes very tender and sweet after about 40 days of cold weather through the rest of winter until it goes to seed.
Learn some more about southern seeds in this fun interview by Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden with me. Or read my newly released book The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. I’ll be back soon with more about home grown and fresh ground cornmeal and the many uses of sweet potatoes in winter.
Thanks for stopping by and we hope you’ll come back often to see what we’re growing and cooking.
Ira Wallace lives and gardens at Acorn Community Farm, home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, where she coordinates variety selection and seed growers. Southern Exposure offers 700+varieties of non-GMO, open-pollinated and organic seeds. Ira is also a co-organizer of the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello. She serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance and is a frequent presenter at the Mother Earth News Fairs and many other events throughout the Southeast. Her first book the "The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast" was released in Dec 2013.
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