Friday, January 1, 2010

Sherman's March Past The Peas

I always remember relatives long gone as the year turns and one whom I conjured this past week was my Uncle Arthur. He was a true Kentucky gentleman, with a sonorous drawl, an extraordinary palate and a marvelous affinity for bourbon. Uncle Arthur got me thinking about traditions – he was big on those, especially when it came to how he drank his bourbon (that’s another post), and also how important food was when planning “occasions”, as he called them, and that’s a drawn-out long O, with a lot of drawl-infused affectation. Though he never prepared them for me, I heard some family lore about Arthur and black eyed peas, and that in his household, New Year’s Day was not New Year’s Day without them. That was in St. Matthews, KY circa 1950.
Our story now takes us to California, and the suburban track home of the Reilly’s…
A Midwesterner by birth and sister-in-law of the afore mentioned Kentucky gentleman, my mother was not a cook. She spent a lot of time at her sister’s home in St. Matthews prior to her marriage, and was no doubt the happy recipient of many an Arthur-prepared menu. But Mom never brought any time-honored cooking into her Southern California home; the Southern in California being the closest she would ever get to the South after 1957. There were to be no black eyed peas in the Reilly home on New Year’s Day.
We were Rose Bowl people – Mom a Michigan State grad, Dad a Stanford Indian (yes, that’s what they were called back in the day) – so the January 1st tussle between the Pac-10 and the Big-10 became our NYD tradition. Fortunately, the Spartans and the Cardinal never played one another during my parents marriage so we were always safe rooting for the Pac-10, unless USC was playing, in which case we’d cheer for the Big-10, unless it was Michigan. If the Trojans and the Wolverines were the contenders, we’d watch re-runs of the Rose Parade instead of the game. There’s only so much rivalry one family can handle.
Fast forward 30-plus years…

As a cook and one especially interested in culinary history and traditions, I was aware of this custom in the southern United States of making black eyed peas to welcome in the coming year. A friend from Oklahoma has actually prepared them for me several times, but I didn’t understand their significance. Determined to expand my own culinary knowledge, I did a little internet research and Googled “Black Eyed Peas”. Yes, I could still get tickets to their concert with Lady Gaga and Phish, but I digress…

The Black Eyed Pea is a modest legume, but also one of sustenance and a harbinger of good luck, ( And here’s where the luck part comes in:
It’s 1864 and the Civil War is raging. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman of the United States Army is cutting a brutal swath across the South. His troops pillage the farms and plantations they come across, taking farm animals, crops in the fields, anything that resembles food. What the Federals leave in their wake is the unassuming black eyed pea. Produced as fodder for livestock and grown by slaves for their own use, Sherman’s men ignore this lowly plant, oblivious of its high protein content and nutritional value. The humble black eyed pea becomes the sustenance Southerners, black and white, rely upon in the tumultuous post-Sherman times. The deliverance it provided as never been forgotten. It is a lucky bean indeed!
We are now a decade into this new millennium and good luck is still as important a wish as it was in 1864. I wish you many things in 2010: always, good food and exceptional people to share it with; finding a hidden treasure that makes a difference in your life; a special memory. Here’s to you, Uncle Arthur, I don’t usually drink bourbon, but I love the black eyed peas! We’ve had an Occasion today.
Happy New Year!
And in case you were wondering, GO DUCKS!!!

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