Black-Eyed Peas

With a little bit of preparation, you can bring an earthy and satisfying bowl of black-eyed peas to your New Year’s table — and hopefully some good luck along with it.

Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Every Southerner worth their salt eats black-eyed peas, greens and pork on New Year’s Day. You might start early on New Year’s Eve, soaking dried beans in water. You might have the perfect place to pick up some smoked neck bones or a big, unsliced slab of bacon. And you surely will make a mess of the kitchen washing a huge bundle of collard greens, the water droplets beading up and running off the leaves as you wrestle with stems and spines that need to be removed or chopped just so. It is a slow-simmer, apron-required kind of cooking that is unfamiliar to the youngest generations, but cherished by those who still remember their mother, uncle, grandmother or cook who knew their way around soul-food recipes.  

When the prepping and simmering are done, and family and friends come over to usher in a new year — perhaps the slightest bit hungover or maybe just relieved that the holidays are finally behind them — they will gladly grab a piece of cornbread and dig into a plate of good luck and prosperity, giving thanks for home-cooked food.

Into the Kitchen

One of those cooks offering up the beans and greens come New Year’s is Chickasaw’s Rhonda Nodd. She says she’s been cooking alongside her mother since she was 5 years old. “The smell first drew me into the kitchen,” she remembers, saying she looked at what her mother started with, tasted it when she finished, and was amazed at what she had made. Despite being one of four daughters, Nodd was the only one drawn to the kitchen, and so she became her mother’s helper. “I started on vegetables,” she says. “I always chopped onion, celery, bell pepper, tomatoes. I would peel the garlic cloves.” Her mother, Wanda Dailey, patiently showed her how to do each task the right way. Before long, Nodd learned the family recipes inside and out.

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Sitting at a table inside Sweetie’s Country Cooking, blues music playing over the cafe speakers as pans of vegetables are carried out from the kitchen, Nodd remembers how hard her mother worked when they were young, and how each of the children was expected to help. “When she would go to work, she would leave me timers. She would say, ‘I left my red beans on. At so-and-so time, cut the pot off. Wait until about 2:30, start the rice.’ We always had assignments, there was always a time to do something. Start the washer, hang the clothes out on the line. She’s just country, and I wanted to keep that country feel for my restaurant.”

While Sweetie’s has only been open a few short months, it seems to have been a lifetime in the making. “I feel like I’m doing what my momma would be doing when she was at home when I was a little girl.” Except Nodd now shares that food and caring spirit with the whole community. 

Rhonda Nodd

As we speak, she has a big bucket of red beans soaking in her commercial kitchen, getting ready for tomorrow’s menu. “I put them in water tonight. It doesn’t take long to cook them tomorrow if you soak them. They are tender and soft. It’s just the way my mom cooked.”

After a long career as a director for Mobile Infirmary, Nodd knew she wanted a change. She had been selling food from her house to friends and coworkers for years — casseroles, stuffed pineapples, desserts here and there. And she says she thought she’d be happy just selling plates from her back door once every six months. But the restaurant now feels like home.

She says she signed the lease on the storefront just two days after leaving the hospital, and everything has fallen into place since. “It’s like God said, ‘I’ve been waiting on you.’”

She knew she wanted to serve homey country food. “Soul food, made with love, from the soul,” she says. “That’s what I watched my mom cook. She made cakes and pies by the dozen, collards, cabbage, mustards and turnips, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, the whole shebang, by herself, and I was the little helper.” That’s why the restaurant was given Dailey’s nickname, Sweetie.

Deep Roots

The term soul food represents simple, homegrown ingredients miraculously turned into something comforting by hardworking people. Many of the ingredients and methods have their roots in the African Slave trade and rural farming life. Black-eyed peas, for example, were brought from West Africa to Virginia in the 17th century with captive peoples. The beans were combined with rice on South Carolina farms and became hoppin’ John. The food traditions have been passed down from there, generation after generation, across the south.

While black-eyed peas grow better in the dry Texas soil than in the damp conditions of south Alabama, they generally like warm climates and are drought tolerant. George Washington Carver promoted their use because they add nitrogen to the soil. They are considered cowpeas, along with lady peas, pinkeye purple hulls and others, because at times, farmers would grow the bushes in large quantities in the field as opposed to kitchen gardens and leave them to dry for livestock feed. (Waste of a good pea, if you ask me.)

On the New Year’s menu, black-eyed peas have come to symbolize prosperity since they swell when cooked, and added pork represents forward motion into the new year since pigs only root forward. Add a helping of greens for money (the connection is obvious) and the outlook is promising! 

The beans, greens and pork we seek out at our New Year’s meals make regular appearances on Sweetie’s menu and on Nodd’s home table as well. While making pans and pans of country cooking might sound overwhelming to the average cook, for women like Nodd and Dailey, who grew up just a little bit country, Nodd explains it simply. “Like the old folks say: It’s easy when you know how.”

Legend has it that cooking a penny (or dime) with your peas will bring good luck to the whole family in the coming year. The person who finds the coin in their bowl will have the most! Nodd has used the same penny for more than 31 years, and when it’s not at the bottom of a simmering pot, she stores it away inside her Bible.

Preparing black-eyed peas

1. Add dried beans to a colander and rinse under cool water. Remove any stones or debris from the peas, if applicable. 

2. Transfer to a large bowl and fill with about 6 cups water. Let sit at room temperature overnight, or at least 6 hours. (Many beans can be quick soaked using a boil method. See package instructions for details.)

3. Return beans to a colander and rinse again. Then add to your pot for cooking.

Rhonda Nodd’s Black-Eyed Peas

Serves 8

4 cups chicken broth
5 smoked pork neck bones*
1 pound dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight**
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
1 penny for good luck

1. In a large stock pot, bring chicken broth and neck bones to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the meat is falling off the bone, about 30 minutes to an hour.

2. Add all remaining ingredients and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour or until peas reach desired tenderness. 

* Nodd prefers to use smoked pork neck bones in her peas, but ham hocks work well, too. The quartet of meat, bone, fat and smoke imbue the peas with perfect Southern flavor. Sausage, bacon or ham can be used in a pinch with great results. 

** Dried beans can be substituted with frozen or canned. Just omit the overnight soak.

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