What is it we want from our New Year's celebration? Good luck for the coming year – peace, health, prosperity for ourselves and our loved ones. Whether you flip over your calendar page in spring, fall, or winter, whether you give money in a red envelope1 because red is a lucky colour, or tell your neighbours to 'have pig'2, you're trying to spread the good wishes around. Our meals, too, are calculated to encourage some of that good fortune to come our way. The main meal of the first day of the Western New Year usually comes with traditional instructions – a happy new year, for the making of.
In the mid-18th Century, the Great Wagon Road led settlers in their tens of thousands from the port of Philadelphia southward into Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, and into the foothills of the mighty Appalachian mountains. These people were mainly Scots Irish and Germans. They mixed their languages and customs, and they shared their food.
You need to know this if you want to understand why anyone would eat hog jowls and black-eyed peas on a holiday. We're going to tell you why, and we're going to tell you how to prepare a delicious meal for New Year's Day. (So that it stays delicious, most people substitute a chop for the hog jowls.)
Food for Luck
Back in 1790, when the first US census was taken, there were almost four million people in the country3. 94.9% of them lived on farms. If you are a farmer, good luck means having plenty of food on hand. For every farmer who lives in a pork-eating culture, the best sign of prosperity is a pig in the barn.
Which is why Germans say, Du hast Schwein gehabt4, when they mean to congratulate you on your lottery win.
Farmers slaughter pigs in the winter, when it's cold. In late December, even farmers in the subtropics sniff the air and remark that it is 'hog-killing weather'. In Pennsylvania, the Germans celebrate the New Year with fresh pork and sauerkraut, a form of fermented cabbage that keeps well and provides a welcome shot of vitamin C in the cold, dark months. Southern farmers have their 'kraut', as well, but they also have a better growing climate than their Pennsylvania cousins. Mustard, collard, and turnip greens can still be harvested from the back garden in mid-winter. Those greens are mighty tasty – and in the modern day, the colour reminds the eater of money, also a desirable thing to have.
North Carolinians like to make up stories about their customs, though not always accurate ones. Almost every local newspaper will insist that the greens stand for 'folding money' (we know it wasn't green back in the day, but the fact-checkers are lazy), the black-eyed peas stand for 'small change', and the pork... is just good. Oh, and the cornbread is to soak up the pot liquor from the black-eyed peas.
You may safely ignore this ludicrous superstition and make the meal to honour a bunch of subsistence farmers who counted themselves lucky to have a pone of cornbread, a mess of greens, a piece of pork, and some black-eyed peas for their feast.
The Main Dish: Pork
Health-conscious and history-unconscious people have accused rural Southerners of being addicted to fat. After all, they put it in their vegetable dishes. The reason is simple: poor people cannot afford to waste things. Pork fat provided much-needed nutrition. Fat from the less desirable parts of the pig was used to flavour vegetables, particularly collard greens, which had to be cooked a long time to break down the cellulose.
A hog jowl is the cured 'cheek' of the pig – a sort of streaky bacon.
- Remove rind, and slice to desired thickness.
- Fry until done.
- Drain on paper towel.
- Serve warm.
It is not necessary to eat hog jowls as a main dish in order to 'get the luck'. Alternatively, the hog jowl (or a piece of 'fatback', a similar slice of fatty pork) can be added to your greens. You may safely indulge in a bit of ham or a chop for the main course5.
Black-Eyed Peas: The Small Change of Luck
The black-eyed pea is a species of cowpea. Who knew? They come in several delicious varieties, including 'purple hull' and crowder. Shelling bushels of the things in the summer has made your fingers, well, purple, and your back tired. If you were clever and stored them in your freezer, though, now is the time to reap the reward. You didn't? Go buy some frozen ones in the supermarket, you lazy city slicker.
- Place peas in large cooking pot.
- Generously cover with water. Add salt or piece of fatback.
- Boil for about three hours, or until the water in the pot turns black. [This is known as 'pot liquor'.] Do not let peas become dry.
Pick a Mess of Greens
In the mountains, anything green that you eat raw is called 'sallet', as in 'poke sallet'. Anything green and leafy that you cook, possibly for hours, to render it edible is called 'greens', as in 'them greens is good'. The most popular greens are mustard, turnip, and collard. These greens are picked, sold, and prepared in 'messes'.
'How much is a mess of greens?' The answer is: 'How many people do you want to feed?' A mess is simply the quantity necessary for a meal.
- Acquire a mess of greens, either by picking them in the back garden on New Year's Eve, or by the more boring method of purchasing them at the supermarket.
- Wash greens thoroughly to remove sand and possible insects.
- Put greens in large cooking pot. Add salt or fatback and copious quantities of water. (Fill the pot.)
- Boil greens until tender. For mustard, this requires 15-20 minutes, for turnips, 1-2 hours, for collards... let's say half a day.
- Serve with vinegar cruet. Hint: A teaspoonful of vinegar on a serving of greens adds the correct note of piquancy. (It also cuts the grease.)
Cornpone: The pièce de résistance
You are now asking yourself, 'what is a pone when it's at home'? The word is allegedly Algonquin, but the short answer is that a pone is whatever form cornbread takes. This depends, of course, on the shape of your baking vessel. A round cast-iron skillet will do nicely, and is authentic.
- 1 cup buttermilk
- ¼ cup melted lard (Okay, if you're health-conscious6, use vegetable oil.)
- 1¾ cup corn meal
- ¼ cup flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 egg, beaten
A note on the measurements, such as they are: Southerners are backward folk. They regard the Fanny Farmer level tablespoon, introduced in 1896, as a dangerous innovation. To follow this recipe, it is not necessary to use a scale or a set of measuring tools. You don't have to convert between the Babylonian and metric systems.
Just use a soup spoon and a coffee spoon from your kitchen drawer, and a coffee cup or mug from the cabinet. As long as you use the same one, the proportions will be correct. The cup with the broken handle will do.
- Mix dry ingredients in bowl.
- Add egg, oil, and buttermilk.
- Stir until well mixed.
- Heat oven to 400° Fahrenheit. Place cast-iron skillet in oven long enough to melt 2 tablespoons of lard (or to heat vegetable oil, Yankee version). Using potholder, remove skillet and rotate until interior is coated with fat.
- Decant batter into 8-inch skillet. This should be like pouring concrete into a mould.
- Bake in hot oven for 30 minutes, or until cornbread develops brown crust.
- Remembering to use potholder, invert skillet over thick, clean dishtowel. Tap until cornbread frees itself. Place on large plate. Cut into wedges. Serve hot, with butter. Use to soak up pot liquor.
- Depending on how hungry everyone is, a skillet this size will feed a family of four. If you've invited the local bluegrass band, double the recipe and use a larger skillet.
Will Eating This Make You Lucky?
This meal is not guaranteed to make you rich or famous. It will, however, make you full.
These delightful viands may not be fit for royalty, but they would certainly have pleased Davy Crockett, although he might have added bear meat to the menu. Bear meat is hard to get now, as bears are protected.
How about quantities, you ask? How many pounds of peas, how many bushels of greens, etc? This depends entirely on the number of guests you bring to your feast, and how hungry they are. Just use a mess.
Oh, and Happy New Year, y'all.