Collards, black-eyed peas annual staples in the South

By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL sarah@newnan.com A few days before New Year's each year, Matthew Bailey Jr. of Newnan heads out bearing gifts. Cool, crunchy green gifts.
Bailey has been delivering collard greens to several older ladies in the neighborhood he grew up in for 18 years now. The greens, of course, are an essential part of every true Southerner's New Year's Day meal, along with black-eyed peas and a smoked pork product of some kind. Tradition states that if you want to have money (or luck) in the new year, you must eat the peas and greens on New Year's Day. In the most common version, the collards represent paper money, and the peas represent coins. Some add sweet potatoes to represent gold. Others say you eat greens and beans -- a poor man's food -- on New Year's, to eat rich for the rest of the year. Bailey's yearly tradition began in a somber way, following the death of Earlie Jean Bohannon. Bailey had grown up around Bohannon's family. After the funeral, all were enjoying turnip greens as part of the repast, except for Bohannon's sister, Leola Arnold. Arnold didn't like turnip greens. She did like collards, though. This was a few days before New Year's, and Bailey decided to take her a big mess of collards. Eighteen years later, Bailey is still delivering collards for New Year's. Now, though, he visits 25 homes. Bailey was visiting with Cornelia Cousin, sister to Arnold and Bohannon, on Tuesday. The first year "I thought he was showing me sympathy," Cousin said. "Then, as the years passed, he'd show up every year with a bunch." Cousin and her husband, Sanford, have been eating peas and collards on New Year's for as long as they can remember. Sanford said his grandfather and the old sharecroppers he knew when he was a child always told him that the peas represented change and the collards represented paper money. "We don't know how true it is," Cornelia said, but "we follow it and keep it up." The secret to Mrs. Cousin's collards is that she doesn't add any additional water once she starts cooking them. Other people continue to add water through the cooking process, but she doesn't. "It gives a better flavor, a better taste," she said. She also throws some ham in the pot. When she was a child, her parents and grandparents used fatback, but she tries to make the dish a bit healthier. Bailey said his mother usually will fix two separate batches. His nephew's wife doesn't eat pork, so Mrs. Bailey instead uses turkey necks to add flavor. The origins of the peas and greens tradition are shrouded in mystery. It seems that a few different threads came together for this New Year's tradition. Though most common in the South, Americans in other parts of the country do eat blacked-eyed peas and greens for New Year's. Some Northerners instead enjoy sauerkraut and hot dogs or sausages with their peas. The Babylonian Talmud, compiled around the year 500, instructs Hebrews to include several foods on their tables in the New Year, for good luck. The foods include gourds, black-eyed peas, leeks, dates, and either beets or spinach. Southern Jews may have played a part in developing the tradition. Another legend dates back to the Civil War. When Union troops were scouring the countryside for food and destroying Southern farms and fields, they didn't bother with the "cow peas," which they considered food for livestock, not for people. Though the world may never know exactly how or why this tradition began, black-eyed peas and collards are still an appropriate, and delicious, lucky winter meal. The black-eyed pea is native to Africa and came to America by way of the west Indies. It is a highly drought-tolerant plant, and the roots fix nitrogen -- which means rotating other crops with black-eyed peas can improve poor soil. Historically, they would make a good winter staple because the dried beans would keep well. Collards are a winter vegetable. Though they can grow year round, they are at their best in a Southern winter.


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