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Editorial: The politics of the black-eyed pea

Editorial: The politics of the black-eyed pea

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We have a safe bet: After the year we’ve just had, a lot more people will be eating black-eyed peas than ever before.

If you know what black-eyed peas signify, then congratulations — you have passed the Southern identity test. If you don’t, you might be one of those Northerners who wonder why we’re closing schools at the mere prospect of a single snowflake.

It’s a Southern thang.

Specifically, it’s considered good luck if you eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. Clearly a lot of you let us down this year.

As with many things, there’s a lot more history and politics in the humble black-eyed pea than you might suspect.

First of all, it’s not a pea, it’s a bean. There are lots of things we call by the wrong name. Chinese checkers aren’t from China; they’re from Germany. The Spanish flu wasn’t from Spain; it might have come from Kansas. Arabic numerals aren’t Arabic; they’re actually from India. See, you’ve learned something already.

Like many things we consider quintessentially Southern — okra, the banjo, folk tales — the misnamed black-eyed pea is actually African. A lot of what we think of as distinctly white culture in the South isn’t. The species Vigna unguiculata likely originated in west Africa; that’s where its genetic diversity is the greatest — in the swath of countries from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria on the Atlantic coast inland to Niger and Cameroon. Intercontinental trade introduced the black-eyed pea to Europe about 300 B.C. and to India about 200 B.C.

The introduction of the delicious and nutritious black-eyed pea to North America was directly related to the vile trade in enslaved humans. California State University-Northridge historian Joseph Holloway writes that black-eyed peas were one of the foods that slave traders fed to their human cargo on voyages across the Atlantic. From there, the black-eyed pea became a staple in the Caribbean — easily-grown in that climate and familiar to the enslaved African laborers. “Sources indicate that peas reached Florida around 1700 and then appeared in the fields and on the tables of whites and blacks in North Carolina in the 1730s,” Holloway writes. “Although Virginians cultivated black-eyed peas in the 1600s, they did not become common table food until after the American Revolution.”

As with many things, we can quote George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on black-eyed peas. Washington wrote in 1791 while president that “pease” were rarely grown in Virginia but he set out to change that. The next year, he bought 40 bushels of seed and for years later, the instructions he sent to his overseers at Mount Vernon as well fellow farmers in Virginia frequently included references on where, when and how to plant them. In 1796, then-President Washington again took time from his official duties to write back home: “Near the quarter, at Mansion house; I think, if it is yet unsown, it would be a good spot (or as much thereof as is necessary) to sow the Pease in.” Later that year, President Washington quizzed another correspondent: “Have you considered the alternate growth of Pease and Wheat, since the year 1794, in the field referred to in your printed letter of the 29th of January of that year?” Later, Washington’s personal secretary sent a detailed letter — likely at the president’s behest — with 12 questions about peas to the commissioners of the new District of Columbia. It appears they had been instructed by the president to plant part of the new federal district in black-eyed peas. Among the things Washington wanted to know: “Did you drop them by hand or by means of a drill plough?” Washington was a hands-on chief executive.

Jefferson likewise was pro-pea. “It is very productive, excellent food for man and beasts, awaits without loss our leisure for gathering and shades the ground very closely during the hottest months of the year.” We are duly obligated to point out that Jefferson wasn’t the one picking those peas in his “leisure.” To quote from the musical Hamilton: “A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor / Your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor / “We plant seeds in the South. We create.” / Yeah, keep ranting / We know who’s really doing the planting.” And the gathering, too.

Nonetheless, Jefferson does hit on a key aspect of the black-eyed pea when he praises it as “excellent food for man and beasts.” Black-eyed peas were often called cowpeas because, as Holloway writes, “cows were allowed to eat their stems and vines in the fields after the corn crops had been picked.” That made the plant doubly valuable in the eyes of Southern farmers. Northerners apparently had a very different impression.

One story says that when Union Gen. William Sherman burned his way through Georgia in the Civil War — an early example of “total war” against civilians — he spared crops of black-eyed peas because he didn’t think they were fit for human consumption. After that, black-eyed peas became associated with good luck. Others dispute that account because even if Sherman thought those peas were only for feeding animals, they whould still have been a military target. After all, in Gen. Philip Sheridan’s burning of the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, he had directed Union soldiers to burn lots of barns and generally lay waste to farms in the “breadbasket of the Confederacy.” If Sherman spared pea fields, then his “march to the sea” was falling short of true total war. Others point out another potential weakness in this legend: Pea crops in Georgia should have already been harvested by the time Sherman’s army marched through in November and December 1864.

Sherman was unavailable for comment, so we don’t know his true feelings about black-eyed peas, but do we know that black-eyed peas became a Southern good luck dish. Meanwhile, there’s an alternate origin story that says it was newly freed slaves who started the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, because that was when they celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation. If so, that underscores the point we made earlier: A lot of Southern culture has Black origins. The South has certainly had its problems over the years dealing with its multicultural nature, but food is one thing we can generally agree upon.

Black-eyed peas may or may not bring good luck but they are definitely good for you — rich in iron, magnesium, zinc and the B1 vitamin with absolutely no sodium. So eat up.

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