Black-eyes for '97

The devout ritual of watching football games surrounded by snack food and beer is a mid-20th-century addition to Texas holiday foodways. During the previous 100 years, Texans were known to gather on New Year's Day, raise a glass of their chosen holiday cheer and eat black-eyed peas to ensure good luck in the coming year and collard greens or cabbage -- symbolizing money -- for prosperity. Black-eyed peas surely traveled to Texas with the many Southerners who helped settle the state. The peas are of African origin, and have been a staple in the Southern diet for a good 300 years. Black-eyes (or cowpeas) make a delicious summer meal, too, fresh-hulled from the garden with sliced tomatoes and a big slab of hot cornbread to soak up their pot likker. Easily dried or canned, they are a handy year-round meal, cooked with bacon or salt pork for added flavor.

No one seems to know when or where the myth of black-eyed peas' mystical powers to bring luck developed but they are a standard feature on New Year's menus throughout Texas and the rest of the South. Family favorites vary from household to household but two of the most popular preparations are Hoppin' John, a mixture of black-eyed peas and rice, and Texas Caviar, a marinated black-eyed salad. The origins of Hoppin' John can be traced back to the Carolina low country. I'm not sure who started the marinated black-eyed pea salad trend but one of the earliest published recipes I found was in Helen Corbitt's Cookbook from 1957. The legendary former UT instructor and chef of such famous venues as the Driskill Hotel, the Houston Country Club, and the original Neiman-Marcus department store was a native New Yorker. Corbitt admits that the she never developed much of a taste for black-eyes but she came up with the marinated salad recipe because she was required to serve them every New Year's day no matter where she worked in Texas during the Forties and Fifties. Corbitt's simple recipe was called "Pickled Black-eyed peas." I'm sure it took a native Texan to re-christen the humble cowpea as Texas Caviar.

Regardless of your native origins, eating a mess of peas on New Year's Day just might be the necessary good luck charm for the coming year. Either of these recipes will feed a hungry football-crazed Texas crowd.

Texas Caviar

from Threadgill's -- The Cookbook (Longstreet, $21.95, hard) by Eddie Wilson

2 quarts canned black-eyed peas, drained

1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped

2 tsps garlic, minced

1 cup yellow onion, chopped

1 cup red onion, chopped

1 cup vinegar and oil dressing

1 Tbs Threadgill's vegetable seasoning

Mix all ingredients well and marinate at least 12 hours, stirring a few times to coat all ingredients in marinade.

Hoppin' John

from Eats -- A Folk History of Texas Food (TCU press, $23.50, hard) by Ernestine S. Linck and Joyce G. Roach. According to these ladies, the legend is that diners will see a dollar for every black-eyed pea eaten on New Year's day.

1 cup dried black-eyed peas

1/4 lb salt pork or hog jowl

1 green pepper, chopped fine

1 onion, chopped fine

Wash peas to remove all gravel. Soak overnight. Add the peas to boiling water with pork, pepper and onion, simmer until tender. Cook an equal portion of rice. When the peas are done and the water is low, add the rice, a tablespoon of butter, salt and pepper to taste, and as many pinches of cayenne pepper as it takes to keep John hoppin'! Serve with onion slices and corn bread.

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