If you’re superstitious or Texan or Southern, the odds are good that black-eyed peas serve as part of your New Year’s Day menu every year. If you possess both traits, it’s a given that you are among the true believers who eat black-eyed peas on Jan. 1 because doing so is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity the rest of the year. Practical minded folks from other climes call them cowpeas and feed them to the cows and hogs.
How the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for good luck every year got started is still a matter of conjecture and debate. Some trace it back to the Egyptian good luck image of pigmented legumes and others say that other cultures used them as protection from the dreaded Evil Eye.
The popular U.S. folk wisdom holds that the tradition started during the Civil War when Union troops burned agricultural fields but considered cowpeas to be livestock feed and left them alone. People might have starved without the black-eyed peas to sustain them. Of course, there are variations on this story and other stories as well.
Depending on how you feel about black-eyed peas, we have primarily two people to either thank or blame for the popularity they enjoy in Texas and beyond. One would be J.B. Henry, who accidentally made black-eyed peas a commercially viable product, and the other would be Elmore Rual “Tiger” Torn, the father of actor Rip Torn and founder of the National Black-Eyed Pea Appreciation Society.
Tiger Torn, a chemurgist by trade, traveled the world studying food problems. In his travels he said he discovered that serving one kind of black-eyed lentil or another was a good luck tradition in India but also in Egypt and France.
“One explanation is that these lentils are great soil builders,” he theorized. “Ask any farmer. You plant black-eyed peas for a few years and they restore soil worn out, for instance, by long cotton cultivation. So this business of the legume restoring the soil may have something to do with the superstition that the black-eyes bring good luck for all the year.”
Some say that Tiger Torn created the old New Year’s Day “tradition” after World War II as a way to promote black-eyed peas for the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce, that he cooked the whole story up and sold it to gullible food editors at newspapers all over the country who eventually passed it on to an equally gullible public.
Torn was for many years the black-eyed pea’s biggest booster and ambassador. He even attempted (unsuccessfully) to expand the black-eyed pea into Vietnam in the 1960s, during the height of the war, and also offered to supply U.S. troops with black-eyed peas for their New Year’s Day meals. (The Army politely declined because, as Gen Westmoreland said, there just didn’t seem to be a big demand for black-eyed peas from the troops.)
When Torn returned from Vietnam he learned of another association dedicated to the black-eyed pea, the Black-Eyed Pea Society of America, based in Richmond, Virginia and headed by Washington columnist James J. Kilpatrick. Torn wrote to Kilpatrick: “Any friend of the black-eyed pea is a friend of mine. Perhaps our organizations can merge.”
Kilpatrick responded: “Helping us through this difficult time is the generous attitude of Mr. Torn, who is exhibiting that nobility of spirit which identifies every lover of the black-eyed pea; he has welcomed our Virginia tendril to his long-established pea patch.”
That Torn had the black-eyed pea crop to boost in Texas was largely due to J.B. Henry, an Athens businessman, who first decided to grow black-eyed peas in large quantities around 1909. In trying to figure out a way to combat the weevils that bedeviled his plants, he dried them in an oven on East Tyler Street in Athens. The process may not have done much for weevil research but it made the peas easier to ship, which made them work as an agricultural product.
Athens was soon billed as the Black-Eyed Pea Capital of the World and functioned as such for several decades – peas were grown there, canned there and shipped from there. Even after the commercial production of black-eyed peas in the area declined, the city paid homage to their historical importance with a Black-Eyed Pea Jamboree.
Athens doesn’t hold the black-eyed pea cook-off anymore, but it is part of the annual Fall Festival at the East Texas Arboretum. The cook-off has in the past revealed a versatility of the pea that might have perplexed even J.B. Henry and Tiger Torn. People have whipped up black-eyed pea enchiladas, cowpea quiche, and black-eyed pea cheesecake along with Jell-O and adult beverages such as a “peatini” and black-eyed pea wine. A pickled version of the peas is called Texas Caviar.
That kind of culinary creativity on the part of people doesn’t leave a lot of black-eyed peas for the cows and hogs but it makes for a good tradition. It doesn’t matter if that tradition has been around 60 years, a hundred years or a thousand years – just so long as it’s tasty.