Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

January 19, 2014


More than you ever wanted to know about black eyed peas


                While sharing a meal with friends in Ohio the subject of favorite foods came up. When I told them that back home we enjoyed eating okra and tomatoes one of them remarked, “Okra? Around here we don’t eat okra; we feed okra to the hogs.”

            I thought about that when I read that years ago people in the northern states did not eat black eyed peas but fed them to their livestock. That attitude prevailed during the time of the Civil War.

            All my life our family has eaten black eyed peas on New Year’s Day. We did it because everybody else did it. The only explanation I ever heard was that eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day would bring good luck in the New Year. 

            I had no idea it was mostly a southern tradition that began shortly after the Civil War. My Texas friend Wendell Franklin Wentz shared “the real story” with me. I went online and checked out his story and the evidence supports his account.

            Wendell admits that like me he had enjoyed eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day for years without having a clue why the peas were supposed to bring us good luck. After learning the story Wendell concluded that the explanation has gone untold for the most part because of fear that “feelings would be hurt.”

            The “real story” comes out of an event during the most brutal and bloody war in American history. Military power caused great suffering for civilians, women, children and the elderly. Wendell explains that what happened was the policy of the greatest nation on earth and it “was never seen as a war crime.” Its purpose was to “maintain the status quo at all costs.” And Wendell observes, “An unhealed wound remains in the hearts of some people in the southern states even today.”

            This historic event was Sherman’s Bloody March to the Sea in 1864. Wendell says, “It was called the Savannah Campaign and was led by Major General William T. Sherman. The Civil War campaign began on November 15, 1864, when Sherman’s troops marched from the captured city of Atlanta, Georgia and ended at the Port of Savannah on December 22, 1864.

            “When the smoke cleared, the Southerners who had survived the onslaught came out of hiding. They found that the ‘blue-belly aggressors’ had looted and stolen everything of value, and everything you could eat, and all livestock was either stolen or destroyed.

            “Death and destruction were everywhere. While in hiding, few had enough to eat, and starvation was now upon the survivors. There was no international aid, no Red Cross meal trucks. The Northern Army had taken everything they could carry and eaten everything they could eat. But they couldn’t take it all. The devastated people of the South found for some unknown reason that Sherman’s blood-thirsty troops had left silos full of black eyed peas. At the time in the North, the lowly black eyed pea was only used to feed livestock.

“The Northern troops saw it as the least thing of value. Taking grain for their horses, livestock and other crops to feed themselves, they just couldn't take everything. So they left the black eyed peas in great quantities, assuming it would be of no use to the survivors, since all the livestock it could feed had been taken, eaten or destroyed. Southerners awoke to face a new year in this devastation and were facing massive starvation if not for the good luck of having the black eyed peas to eat.”

Wendell concludes his “real story” with this comment: “From New Year’s Day 1866 forward, the tradition grew for true Southerners to eat black eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck.”

            So, until a reputable historian comes along with a better explanation, I offer Wendell’s observations as the “real story” behind the tradition of eating black eyed peas for good luck on New Year’s Day.

Allow me to add this postscript to Wendell’s story: Black eyed peas are a real treat any day of the year when they are joined on the table by fried chicken, okra and tomatoes, sweet potato casserole, sweet onions and a pone of Mama’s fine cornbread!  

Good luck or no good luck! + + +