Peas and Sympathy

31 Dec

Find me the person who treats the last day of the outgoing year and the first day of the new one with little notice and I’ll show you a liar. Or, in a more sympathetic view, a person who has been sorely disappointed by the days up to now.

It’s not like every year is a banner one or I am possessed by an irrepressible spirit of Pollyanna-ness at the end of December. No matter how good or bad the last 365 were or weren’t, there is bittersweet in varying doses of spoon or bowls-full. I remember one particular New Year’s Eve, counting down what felt like unbearably long final seconds –  10, 9, 8 – and thinking, my god, please let’s stick a fork in this one; it can’t end soon enough. Others end with hearty clinks and big smiles. It’s the beautiful unpredictableness of life, ain’t it?

IMG_0766For me, 2012 was a good year in many ways. I spent more time with my Dad. I got closer with people I wanted to get closer to. A long-held dream of visiting South America was fulfilled, and I made it to new-to-me spots in three other countries, too, in what amounted to some very fortunate and wondrous travel. I reunited with an old friend, made some great new ones. In work, I hit a stride that I’ve been working toward for a long time. And Mitt Romney didn’t become president. For all this, I am a pile of grateful.

And then there’s the balancing bits that simultaneously make me feel like the plates are shifting erratically under my feet and whose vice grip of gravity keeps all the happy stuff in clear perspective. We lost a dear, dear friend to cancer after she waged a long, phenomenal, and righteous battle; I still can’t get it through my head that she’s gone. Hurricane Sandy took our breath away with her wrath. The unspeakable murders in Newtown, CT. After a doctor discovered a bizarre mass on his brain, an old friend I’ve known since age 12 is having brain surgery within the hour that I am writing this.

Unless southern Italy is the place of topic, I am not a southerner by any stretch of geography or imagination. I grew up on Long Island, moved to New York City a long time ago, and have never dwelled in residence outside the Empire State. Still, a few years ago, I adapted the tradition of making Hoppin’ John – black-eyed peas cooked with salt pork – for the New Year. It’s a dish with a sad/happy past, which – when I think about looking back on the good and bad of any year – makes it seem all the more appropriate. In books I have like The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink and the Food Lover’s Companion, similar bits of information are listed on the dish’s origins: It originated in the Caribbean and was brought to the southern United States by people ripped from their homes and families and forced into slavery. But an article I found written by Susan Krumm in 2009 shed a little more light on the dish. She writes:

Black-eyed peas … were brought to the West Indies and made their way to the United States in 1674 by way of the slave trade. They were a staple in the diet of American slaves.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers, following the scorched-earth policy on their march through the South from Atlanta to Savannah, Ga., destroyed all crops such as cotton, tomatoes and potatoes. In part, because they were a staple of the diet of slaves, black-eyed peas were overlooked… Southerners — slave owners, commoners and former slaves — turned to black-eyed peas for survival.”

A homely little legume turned out to be mightier than the sword. Or, at least, a food that sustained people, maybe gave them hope, and certainly kept them alive.

As to the name? The etymology is as murky as a long-cooked pot of peas can be, with versions like the so-called common welcome of, “Hop in, John!” when inviting someone into your house for a dish and some warmth, or that perhaps a children’s game of hopping around the dinner table on one leg before sitting down to the New Year’s Day dish brought good luck (and maybe expended some extra energy to keep little ones sitting still in their seats). The humble bean often has that kind of back story – Jack’s magic beans; my grandmother’s good luck chick peas on All Soul’s Day; lucky fava beans on St. Joseph’s Day. A little talisman to hold onto and wish for all good outcomes for ourselves and the ones we care for deeply.

Southern or not, I’ll make a little pot of Hoppin’ John tomorrow using what I’ve got — some salt pork and stock I’ve got in the freezer, the bag of beans in the pantry, gratefulness for the good I had this year, sorrow for the bad, and the will-it-to-be-better hope for my friend today and anyone else who needs it for the days ahead. Happy New Year, all. May your pots be full of beans and your hearts with ladles full of luck and hope. xo

hoppinHoppin’ John (adapted from the Cookin’ Up the Blues Tobasco Cookbook)
4 cups dried black-eyed peas, rinsed and picked over
3 ham hocks
1 lb thick-sliced speck or pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch or so bits
2 lg Spanish onions, chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 TBSP Tabasco
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp Kosher salt

Soak beans in water overnight. In a large pot filled with water, boil the ham hocks for 45 minutes or so. In a large Dutch overn, cook the speck or pancetta until fat begins to render. Add in onion, celery, and garlic and sautee until soft. Add the peas and stock. When they come to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Add in ham hocks (reserve the liquid), thyme, Tabasco, pepper, and salt. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until liquid is absorbed. If the beans aren’t quite ready, add in a little more liquid from the water used for the ham hocks. Serve with corn bread, look those you toast in the eye, and have a lucky, happy New Year.

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