The Dish with Deah, New Years Food Traditions

Written by Deah Mitchell Berry

The tradition of Watch Night Service, a cherished practice among many Americans on the eve of new year holds special significance and historical meaning for Black Americans. But the day also forges a tasty Southern superstition that connects iconic traditions to this historic church commemoration. 

December 31, 1862, a night known as Freedom’s Eve would be the start of this spiritual celebration. June 19, 1865 would be Texas’ emancipation, but in Virginia, South Carolina and other Southern states news of Abraham Lincoln’s newly prepared Emancipation Proclamation had spread and many were pregnant with anticipation for the January 1, 1863 deadline to officially proclaim their freedom. They gathered in secret in the sanctuaries of their Lowcountry churches, creating an atmosphere that was thick with hope and the promise of a new era. As the clock neared midnight, the congregation, bound by the chains of slavery but united in spirit, awaited the stroke that would mark the dawn of a new chapter in their lives. 

And amidst the spiritual and emotional fervor, the celebratory atmosphere extended to their culinary practices. The menu for this momentous occasion featured symbolic dishes that even today have continued to offer messages of hope and resilience. Hoppin’ John, a dish that traditionally used field peas, a type of cowpea (not the popular Black-eyed peas used in some communities today) that is woven into the fabric of tradition. This iconic Lowcountry dish took its place alongside collard greens dotted with fatty studs of pork hog jowls. Today, these same foods are representative of prosperity in predominately Southern kitchens: Black eyed peas, a promise of expanding wealth, collard greens to signify paper money (and thus prosperity) and the often forgotten third member of this New Year trinity – pork. Each of these eaten together is said to guarantee a year of wealth. Although the tradition of eating these foods reaches back even further than this spiritual connection, it is one of the first times that we saw the foods recorded and tied to a day of celebration. 

If you or your loved ones hail from the South, chances are you’ve welcomed the New Year with a substantial serving of these foods too. On the eve of January 1 when the clock strikes midnight many of us have annual traditions that we continue to observe without really knowing why. Perhaps your New Year tradition will be counting backwards until the ball drops or clinking champagne flutes and sealing your destiny with a kiss of a romantic partner. Southerners have prioritized a healthy heaping of black-eyed peas. For those not native to the region but seeking a bit of luck in these economic times, understanding the background of this dish and other auspicious foods is worthwhile. Different families have their own traditions when it comes to black-eyed pea dishes, resulting in a variety of preparations and combinations. 

If cooking is not your thing and you’re looking to let others do the heavy lifting for you, Perry’s Steakhouse (various locations) will be offering a delicious traditional New Years Day meal that promises black eyed peas, cabbage (a popular alternative to collard greens) and one of the most delectable porkchops. Perry’s is celebrating the start of 2024 with a delicious special on New Year’s Day! On Monday, Jan. 1, Perry’s will be offering their Sunday Supper on Monday, with these specialty sides just for New Year’s. The three-course Pork Chop Supper features your choice of a soup or salad, Perry’s famous Pork Chop and is finished off with a dessert trio. 2024 is already looking even more prosperous with these offerings. 

Deah Berry Mitchell is a Dallas-based freelance writer and cultural historian. She’s the author of the cookbook “Cornbread & Collard Greens: How West African Cuisine & Slavery Influenced Soul Food,” co-founder of The Soul of DFW bus tours, and founder of the forthcoming Nostalgia Black app.

IG @deahberrymitchell 

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