Collard Greens and Black Eyed Peas: Why we eat them on January 1st?


Richard Locket has been cooking for a long time. As the head chef at MeMaw’s in Macon, he knows a thing or two about soul food and southern food traditions like eating black eyed peas and collard greens on January first.

“Well, it’s an old slave tradition, that’s what it is”, says Richard Lockett, Head Chef at MeMaw’s Restaurant.

Dr. David Davis is a Mercer University English Professor and food historian.

“I think when we’re eating peas and greens on New Years Day, we’re actually doing something that is fundamentally southern, but we’re perpetuating a practice that is ultimately embedded in the culture of slavery,” says Dr. David Davis, English Professor, Mercer University.

The food ties to the time period, are well documented .

“Collard greens is a food that is persistent in the winter months, so it was very common to have collards still growing fresh as late as December to January”, says Davis. “And cow peas are available because they can be dried and preserved throughout the course of the year”.

So why January 1st? Davis says that history shows that slaves were given less responsibilities between Christmas and the New year … giving them reason to conclude this time period with a large meal. But there’s also another theory.

“I think this is the more compelling reason is that January 1st, for many families existing under slavery would be the last time they would be together as a family”, says Davis.

That’s because, Davis says, many slaves were rented out to work at other plantations for a year, starting on January first. So how do these notions then evolve into superstitions?

“Well the old, old slogan is that the greens was for money, you cook the greens for money. For the peas, the peas are for pennies and it takes pennies to make dollars so, this is all I heard coming up”, says Lockett.

“It comes handed down as a tradition passed in oral tradition from family to family and it get detached from the culture of slavery where some historian and food scholars thinks it originates,” says Davis.

And from there, the tradition spreads across cultures from past centuries to today.

“For more white families through to the late 20th century, African Americans would be performing the essential food labor and so this transmits from African American families to white families and it makes even more sense as it transmits from African American to white families that the connection to slavery becomes downplayed and eventually lost”, says Davis.

Again, Dr. Davis does emphasis that a lot of history surrounding collards and peas in the new year is just speculation because not much was documented about food culture when these traditions started.  That being said, for whatever reason you and your family may eat the duo on January 1st, here’s hoping that the new year brings you good luck and good fortune.