Eating black-eyed peas is an age-old tradition associated with welcoming the new year. The first account of this custom dates to around 500 A.D. when black-eyed peas were eaten for luck during the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As the cultivation of black-eyed spread throughout several continents, the tradition of ringing in the new year with this legume was adopted.
In the United States, consuming black-eyed peas on New Year's Eve is a southern custom for good fortune in the coming year. Black-eyed peas are prepared and served with other vegetables for added wealth throughout the upcoming year. When black-eyed peas are eaten with cornbread, collards, or other leafy green vegetables, the latter represents the prosperity of green money and cornbread symbolizes a fortune of gold.
Consuming black-eyed peas in the US may also be associated with the adage, "Eat poor on New Year's, and eat fat the rest of the year." Also, as liquid is added to dry black-eyed peas for cooking, they swell in size, which has been linked with expanding wealth. In another version of this custom, an impeccably-clean penny or dime is placed in the cooking pot. The person who is served the coin will enjoy the most prosperity in the new year. Although this custom is not advised, since a coin may become a choking hazard, perhaps one who survives swallowing the coin would also be the lucky person.
Black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata), also known as cowpeas, are a type of bean. Several parts of the plant are edible, including the leaves, small, immature pods, shelled green peas, or dry, mature peas. However, it is most often eaten as a dry, shelled pea. A common variety of black-eyed peas with a bush-type growth habit is Arkansas Blackeye #1, while a common vining type is California Blackeye #5.
Gardeners who want to produce their own black-eyed peas should sow seeds at a one-inch depth after May 10 and before July 15 when the soil warms to at least 60 °F. Fertilize plants with about 1 pound of 12-12-12 fertilizer per 100 feet of row in a band 2 to 3 inches from the base of the plants just after they bloom. Because black-eyed pea plants can fix (i.e., obtain) nitrogen from the atmosphere and utilize it for growth, this nutrient should be applied sparingly. Although plants are considered drought-tolerant, they benefit from irrigation during dry periods.
In general, black-eyed peas are grown much like the common bush or pole types of green beans but require more time to mature. The time required from seeding to harvest for black-eyed peas is about 80 or more days (for use as a dry pea), while 50 to 60 days are needed for green beans. For fresh, edible black-eyed pea pods, harvest them when they are tender and snap when broken. For fresh, edible peas, delay picking until the pods and peas are larger and begin to turn yellowish, but are plump and still green. Green pods and peas are highly perishable and are best consumed shortly after harvest.
Immature black-eyed peas are usually cooked for about 10 minutes. For dry peas, pick the pods just after they turn cream-colored and remove the peas from the pods for storage. Dry black-eyed peas are commonly rehydrated before cooking for at least 30 minutes.
A few soil-borne fungi, viruses, and root-knot nematodes can become problematic on black-eyed peas. Rhizoctonia, pythium, and fusarium are fungi that cause root and seed rots or plant death when soils are wet. California Blackeye #5 is resistant to fusarium wilt and nematodes. Bacterial blights can also infect leaves, but Arkansas Blackeye #1 is resistant to bacterial blight.
There are several arthropod pests that infest black-eyed peas. Lesser cornstalk borers, which are found inside stems, can cause young seedlings to collapse and die. The cowpea curculio is a small black weevil that feeds on immature pods in early summer and later deposits its eggs in the developing peas. Aphids are found on green tissue and can transmit virus diseases, resulting in crop loss. Late-season stink bugs feeding, can severely damage peas within pods. Mites can also be problematic during hot, dry weather.
With a bit of work in the garden, black-eyed peas can be grown successfully in Missouri. Eating a dish of home-grown black-eyed peas just might change your fate and fortune in the new year.