Tracing the Origins of a Black American New Year's Ritual

On New Years Day, black American families across the country will sit down to eat a variation of green vegetables and cowpea , joining a...


On New Years Day, black American families across the country will sit down to eat a variation of green vegetables and cowpea, joining a lasting tradition destined to usher in the coming year.

“I don’t let a New Year’s Day go by without having some form of greens, pork and black-eyed peas,” said food historian Jessica B. Harris.

The choice of green vegetables, usually cooked with pork for flavor, comes from the perception among black Americans that folded collard greens look like paper money, said Adrian Miller, author and food expert. Eating green vegetables on New Years Eve or New Years Day is believed to bring greater financial prosperity. Peas promise good luck, health and abundance.

But while these rituals have become widely associated with the southern United States, their roots can be traced back to meeting West African and European traditions, Miller said. Green cabbage, for example, is native to northern Europe.

“Collar cabbage is a corruption of colewort – colewort is any headless cabbage,” said Dr Harris, author of “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America”. “They have become a part of the eating habits of African Americans. Africanism is in their kitchen – not in the green itself. This long, low, slow cooking method, and with the potlikker consumed, is a very different thing.

And celebrating the first day of the year is more of a global tradition, Miller said. In Italy, for example, lentils – which look like coins – are cooked with pork and served for good luck. In West Africa, he added, “there have certainly been auspicious days. But this idea that the first day of the calendar year – and doing something on that day – would bring good luck, to my knowledge, did not exist in West African societies before European contact.

West African spiritual practices often revolved around deities who had favorite foods like black-eyed peas, which originated from the continent. The forced migration of African slaves to North America and their interactions with European settlers led to a convergence of customs.

“It’s a little complicated,” Mr. Miller said, “but you can see this process of cultural dissemination, borrowing, appropriation, all of these things that have happened over the past centuries, to the point where it blends into the tradition we have now. “

Geography has also played a role in the variety of interpretations that have emerged from it. In parts of the country influenced by the British, cabbage or kale could be served on New Years Day, while in states like Louisiana, where German influence was stronger, people often enjoyed cabbage. As white Americans seeking to adopt an all-American identity began to reject European customs, blacks found ways to transform those customs.

“When people let go of superstitions because they just seem outdated, it creates space for new associations to emerge,” Miller said.

Black and southern traditions eventually became inextricable. The first documented celebration of the Black New Year is recounted in “” by Toni Tipton-MartinJubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cuisine. “In the book, she shares the origins of Watch Night, when black Americans gather at church to sing, praise, and pray before the stroke of midnight. On the first of these events, December 31, 1862 – or the day before of Freedom – Slaves from the Lowcountry of South Carolina gathered in churches to await news of their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation, which was to be signed on New Years Day 1863. Their celebrations included a Hoppin ‘John’s menu, collard greens with pork jowls and baby back ribs.

“My goal in posting these stories in ‘Jubilee’ was to be able to tell a larger story about African Americans and New Years Eve,” Ms. Tipton-Martin said. “It lets you see strains of African myth in things that we think of as classic America.”

The scrambling of what Tipton-Martin calls “lucky food traditions” can lead to erasure.

Amethyst Ganaway, a chef and writer from Lowcountry, notes that people often refer to black-eyed peas and rice and Hoppin ‘John interchangeably. Both make appearances at black American tables, but Hoppin ‘John is a one-pot meal of rice and field peas – a variety of cowpea that is only widely available in the Lowcountry. It’s also a bit lighter and redder, and has a creamier consistency than its black-eyed cousin.

“It’s important to make this distinction because it is really the origins of these traditions that are being lost,” Ms. Ganaway said. “So many people think that The traditions of Gullah Lowcountry and people die. No, we are here. She added, “It actually starts here, and it’s important to remember that it starts here for a reason, so our identity, our eating habits are not erased and turned into this mainstream.”

Although New Year’s culinary traditions persist in the South, Frédéric opie, professor of history and food at Babson College in Massachusetts, noted that they can be of particular importance to black Americans.

“Is there a correlation between a society or culture that has experienced a greater sense of being oppressed and marginalized than usual, and that hope for next year maybe means experiencing something?” better ? I suspect so, ”he said.

The way people celebrate the New Year is also essential in creating goodwill. Dr Harris hosted parties for nearly two decades in the 1980s and 1990s, serving a lucky menu to up to 70 guests at his Brooklyn home.

“It was a great thing to do, and I really enjoyed doing it,” she said.

Black Americans have found the celebration in other foods as well. JJ Johnson, the chef and owner of Excursion in New York, follows the advice of his grandmother, originally from North Carolina, when preparing it fish okra – with some modifications – on New Years Eve.

“I’ve been taught that if you eat well at the start of the New Year, then you will be fine and you will be healthy,” Mr Johnson said. “To me, an okra like this represents family, luxury and joy.”

Although the menus may vary, the goal is the same.

The tradition “has survived because it’s fun and it’s about aspiration,” said food expert Miller. “You always hope that no matter what your condition, there is always a better future. “

Receipts: Green cabbage and cornmeal dumplings | Black-eyed peas and rice | fish okra

If you’re making this seafood okra to celebrate the New Year and want to stick with sparkling wine throughout the meal, why not? This okra should go wonderfully with sparklers, whether it’s Champagne or the many others that come from all over the world. You can also associate it with many different white wines, such as Riesling (dry or moderately sweet), albariño, various chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire Valley, Chenin Blancs or even Bordeaux Blanc, provided that ‘they are well balanced and unoaked. I would consider a lot of dry Italian whites. The spicier the okra, the better a slightly sweet wine, such as a Kabinett or Spätlese Riesling or an off-dry Vouvray. I wouldn’t choose a red, but if you insist, look for something fresh and light, like a Beaujolais or a Beaujolais-Villages. ERIC ASIMOV

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