Most Southerners will tell you that it dates back to the Civil War. Black-eyed peas were considered animal food (like purple hull peas). The peas were not worthy of General Sherman’s Union troops. When Union soldiers raided the Confederates food supplies, legend says they took everything except the peas and salted pork. The Confederates considered themselves lucky to be left with those meager supplies, and survived the winter. Peas became symbolic of luck.
Black-eyed peas were also given to slaves, as were most other traditional New Year’s foods. Let’s face it: a lot of the stuff eaten in the South on New Year’s is soul food. One explanation of the superstition says that black-eyed peas were all Southern slaves had to celebrate with on the first day of January 1863. What were they celebrating? That was the day when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. From then on, peas were always eaten on the first day of January.
Others say that since the South has generally always been the place for farming, black-eyed peas are just a good thing to celebrate with in the winter. Not many crops grow this time of the year, but black-eyed peas hold up well, were cheap and just make sense.
How do you eat the peas? Some people believe you should cook them with a new dime or penny, or add it to the pot before serving. The person who receives the coin in their portion will be extra lucky. Some say you should eat exactly 365 peas on New Year’s day. If you eat any less, you’ll only be lucky for that many days. I guess on leap years, you need to eat an extra one. If you eat any more than 365 peas, it turns those extra days into bad luck. Some say you should leave one pea on your plate, to share your luck with someone else (more of the humbleness that peas seem to represent).
Some say if you don’t eat every pea on your plate, your luck will be bad.
It’s also said that if you eat only peas, and skip the pork, collard greens, and the accompaniments, the luck won’t stick. They all work together or not at all.