Black-Eyed Peas in Black History: A Culturally Iconic Food

As a tradition Black Eyed Peas are the staple to holiday meals especially the first of the year . Here’s a little history we found regarding the black-eyed peas and their connection to Black culture

Black-eyed peas have been a staple in the diets of Black people for centuries, providing a tasty source of protein, calcium, fiber, and vitamin A. Black-eyed peas originated in North Africa. 

Records show they were brought to the West Indies by enslaved West Africans as early as 1674, subsequently spreading to the U.S. where they became a staple primarily for animals and enslaved Africans.  An early Virginia cookbook also included a recipe for fried cakes made of mashed black-eyed peas, a delicacy that had been prepared by West Africans since the Middle Ages 

Many of the traditions we now see surrounding the black-eyed pea stem from the Civil War era. It is commonly held that enslaved Africans, who already ate the food often, notably ate them with the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, also signaling the New Year.   

The black eyed pea was further solidified in Southern culture with the story of General William Sherman’s March to the Sea in November of 1864 when they pillaged the Confederates’ food supplies. Stories say black-eyed peas and salted pork were left untouched because Sherman and his troops believed they were for animal consumption. Southerners and the remaining slaves considered themselves lucky to be left with some supplies when they pillaged the Confederates’ food supplies. Stories say black-eyed peas and salted pork were left untouched because Sherman and his troops believed they were for animal consumption. Southerners and the remaining slaves considered themselves lucky to be left with some supplies to help them survive through the winter and the New Year, and black-eyed peas thus evolved into a representation of good luck.

Decades later, folk singer Ella Jenkins recalled how this tradition remained: “People had this feeling about good luck and black-eyed peas. So every New Year’s Day, you must get your black-eyed peas.” Greens also became a common additive, which represented green money. Black-eyed peas has been the provider of nutrients and strength to enslaved people, a necessity in African American New Years’ celebrations, and contributed to widely loved Soul Food…  The black-eyed pea is truly a culturally iconic food. 

( Excerpted from History Makers/Chicago Crusader)