I’m sure my grandmother is looking down from the great beyond and shaking her head. I’m guessing what is left of her earthly body is spinnin’ in her grave. As soon as she heard that can opener, I visualize a side eyed look below her furrowed brow. Not only am I cooking canned black-eyed peas I’m serving canned collards to go with them. If she were still alive, I’m sure I would be disenfranchised.
My grandmother, Nannie, was not known for her cooking. She wasn’t into exotic food…I don’t think I ate a pizza until I went off to college. Pizza…exotic? Cooter Stew was about as exotic as she got. But there were lines she would never cross and peas with collards from a can was a line in concrete.
Peas and collards fit right in with her idea of utilitarian food, with cornbread and a raw onion of course. Oh, and some of Aunt Alta’s chow chow. Bless my soul, I had forgotten that. Nannie’s meals were made to fortify you for a long day in the field. Exotic foods weren’t known to stick to your ribs.
In her small kitchen dried black-eyed peas from her fields would have been put in the Dutch oven to soak the night before, picked over to remove shells or gravel that might have “snuck” in. Drained and rinsed, they would have returned to the Dutch oven along with onions, ham hocks, and seasonings and allowed to slow simmer in water and get to know each other for the next four or five hours. When the ham hocks were tender, they would be removed, and the meat picked from the bone and fat and returned to the peas.
Well before the pickin’, fresh collards from her garden would have been washed and rinsed repeatedly, chopped awaiting placement into another Dutch oven. There they would join up with sauteed, in bacon grease, onion and chopped ham, some broth, apple cider vinegar, and red pepper flakes. These would hang together until cooked to death.
An hour before the meal was ready, a cast iron frying pan with a dollop of Crisco would be placed in the old stove to become screaming hot before corn bread batter was poured into it and put back in the oven to cook and brown. I can remember the sizzle the batter made when it hit the grease and have a mental vision of a tanned and creased, flour-streaked cheek. I also remember the corn bread to be a tad dry but something to mop the pot likker from my bowl with.
Tea so sweet it made your teeth ache or fresh buttermilk would wash down the meal.
All told, she spent the better part of half a day to get the meal on the table…which is why I will open a can. My bride will cook her special brand of cornbread, better than my grandmothers, moister at least…and I’ll mop up my pot likker with it. I’ll keep the collards and peas a bit healthier and a lot less tasty, all-in hopes of seeing another New Year’s Day or two. We may oven fry some pork chops…the other white meat.
It is about traditions, I reckon Southern traditions in this case. It is about honoring the past. As I have quoted before, William Faulkner’s line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Peas swelling as they cook for luck, greens for money, pork because hogs are always moving forward as they forage, and cornbread for gold is a long running tradition…as is cornbread running in butter.
In the South, how the tradition began involves two stories of note. Not sure either is true. According to one, during Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War, “bummers” left behind peas and salt pork thinking it was nothing more than animal feed. Southerners gave thanks for having even that gracious little to get through the winter. I have my doubts about the story. It makes no sense to leave even animal feed behind. It does make for a good story and a reason to celebrate.
According to the second, and I find this more likely, black-eyed peas were a symbol of emancipation for African Americans who were officially freed on New Year’s Day, 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation. As the story goes peas were all they had to eat, and it became a symbol. Again, I am unsure of the story but know former slaves initiated the idea for adding rice to the peas along with bacon, onion, and spices, giving us Hoppin’ John. That is a good thing whether the story is true or not and has become a favorite Southern tradition of mine.
Yes, the South does have traditions we are not likely to allow to die. Some I wish would. Peas and collards isn’t one of them even from a can. Be sure and eat your peas and collards.
I hope you have a healthy and prosperous New Year.
Visit Don Miller’s Author’s Page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR12bCTU7L4-4kWnHyS1zoacryFywuXQm_mLnMXCkCldT08Goh0UKW8dkZY