Did you know that the foods you eat on January 1 can make or break your entire year? At least this is true in the American South, where a failure to feast on greens, black-eyed peas, pork and cornbread will cause your mother to wring her hands in worry and disappointment. Is that how you want to start off 2019? Certainly not.
There’s good reason behind the foods that make up this traditional New Year’s Day meal. All of them symbolize wealth and prosperity. Peas and beans represent coins, greens represent paper money, pork is a sign of prosperity because pigs root forward in their quest for food, and golden cornbread is, well, golden.
If you’re signing on for a lucrative 2019 by starting your year with this traditional Southern feast, you’re in for a relatively easy go of it in the kitchen if you use a few shortcuts.
Forget dried black-eyed peas. You’ll be too focused on New Year’s Eve celebrations to remember to soak them overnight. And canned black-eyed peas can be slimy and mushy. Frozen black-eyed peas are the best choice because you don’t have to soak them and they cook up firm and slime-less. They’re tasty boiled with salt, pepper and a dousing of corn or peanut oil, but if you want to get fancy you can sautee onions, garlic and peppers in the pot before adding your beans and water. This is completely optional and I promise that as long as you add enough salt and cook them until they’re tender, they’ll be good either way.
Greens are the ultimate slow food – both time- and labor-intensive – so few of us even know how to cook them anymore. My go-to strategy is to find a neighbor or relative who is locally famous for his or her greens. Ask nicely and you will probably luck into a few cool whip tubs packed full.
If this strategy doesn’t pan out, don’t worry. A quick consultation with my mother-in-law (aka Peepaw) yielded some pretty good tips.
Uncle Ricky and Aunt Cathy grow the best turnip greens, but if you don’t have a hookup then the ones at the grocery store work fine. You’ll need four bunches for the average holiday table. You can go with all turnip greens, or you can mix some mustard greens into the mix.
Washing the greens is a bit of a to-do. Fill up a kitchen sink and pour in the leaves. Let them soak for a bit to loosen the dirt, then shake the leaves under the water. Drain, rinse and repeat at least twice, preferably three times, to get rid of all the grit. Once they’re clean, remove the tough stems so you’ll have only the tender parts of the leaves left.
Boil a big pot of water with salt and a tablespoon or two of oil. When you dump in the greens they will keep trying to float to the top, so you’ll have to keep pushing them down under the water. Have you added pepper yet? Put some in there. Bacon? This is optional but recommended. And Peepaw adds anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon of sugar to tamp down any bitterness.
And then? “Cook for a fairly good while,” Peepaw said. She refused to be pinned down on an actual cooking time, but said the greens need to simmer until they’re tender, probably 45 minutes at least.
Surely the universe will excuse vegetarians and people who don’t eat pork for religious reasons from this good-luck requirement. But if you’re up for it, pork chops are the traditional choice.
Cornbread is the starch that pulls it all together. I’m partial to Jiffy in a box, fancied up with some jalapenos sprinkled on top for that homemade touch.
Caveat: I eat this meal pretty much every New Year’s Day, and I’m no millionaire. But I have a house to live in, plenty of food to eat, clothes to wear and two healthy, happy sons. So I’m thinking it works!