FLORENCE, S.C. – Why collards and black-eyed peas for New Year's?
The answer amounts to a primer in Southern culinary and agricultural history – with the emphasis equally placed on Southern, culinary, agricultural and history.
Most of the meal, and some of the pre-work, comes with symbolic meaning to go with it, as families celebrated in equal portions of having food at the end of the year and the promise of a better year to come.
It all started with Union Gen. William T. Sherman and his March to the Sea, said Tony Melton, a longtime Clemson Extension agent and someone who grew up in a family of subsistence farmers.
The arrival of cold weather, which was usually starting to set in toward Christmas and New Year's, also plays a role in the menu selections.
Throw in seasonal crop cycles and what traditionally matures in the fields toward the end of the year and that's it in a nutshell.
But there’s so much more.
Timing and symbolism entwined
“You would not miss a New Year's without collards for dollars – green stands for dollars. The peas are for coins,” Melton said.
Peas as a meal dates back to the Civil War.
"Even during the Civil War the Northerners didn't destroy the peas, as they were considered only good enough to feed the animals – so Sherman and them didn't burn up the peas fields," Melton said. "After they left, that was what people had to eat – peas. They'd collect peas, and that would mean better for the future.
"Peas are actually a delicacy in South Carolina, especially green peas. During the winter time we'd have dry peas. We'd take them, dry them out. You'd pick peas as long as you could, and what's left you left on the vine until they dried."
Those dried peas would be harvested about the end of the year, Melton said.
Timing is also a reason that collards – and all other greens – are included in the meal. They're also a crop that is harvested throughout the fall until the end of the year and first frosts, Melton said.
You'd have a bed of turnips and a bed of mustard and other greens and your rows of collards, Melton said.
"We got collard plants form Mr. E.B. Earl at McBee High School – the ag teacher," Melton said. "That was a major part of our food source in those days."
And the act itself of preparing the peas carries with it as much symbolism as eating them does.
"At New Year's, you'd reconstitute them, soak them in water and watch them swell up,” Melton said. “That's another meaning, them growing bigger. That means improvement for the future."
What would collards and peas be without cornbread and a bit of pork with which to season them.
Cornbread symbolizes gold, Melton said, and would have been something that a good farmer would have had plenty of to last the family through the winter.
Melton said he remembered pulling corn from his family's corn crib and taking it to the mill to have turned into either grits or corn meal. Either way, he said, the miller would keep half of what was milled as payment for the service.
"You'd take that cornbread and sop up that pea liquor or bean liquor, and that was very good eating," Melton said of the juice associated with the collards and peas.
"We'd always have some kind of pork along with it,” Melton said. “That'd be the time of year when it would start getting cold that we'd kill the hogs.
"We'd dig a hole in the ground, put a 55-gallon drum in the ground and pour boiling water into it, dip your hog into it and scrape it. Daddy had a special scraper he'd scrape the hair off them with."
Then, Melton said, his family salt-cured the meat, making country ham. It was a meat so salty that Melton said he had to rinse the salt off of it before he could eat it. Today, Melton said smoked ham is the preferred treatment in his household.
"We always had pork, and hog jowls were one of the typical things we'd have," Melton said.
That’s more symbolism.
"The hog can't turn his head backwards. He can only keep his head forward, and that's so you don't look backwards in the New Year, so you always look forward," Melton said.
A meal wouldn’t be complete without potatoes – either sweet or "Irish," Melton said.
When he was growing up, Melton said the soils around the family home in McBee weren’t conducive to digging root cellars, so they would build a tall mound of alternating layers of pine straw and sweet potatoes, starting with pine straw, and then cover it in dirt and sand to keep the vegetables from freezing. To top it all off, a sheet of metal would be suspended over the pile to keep rain from getting into the mix.
"You'd go out there, stick your hand into it and pull a few potatoes out, and that was our desert," Melton said. Irish potatoes were stored under the family's house.
"You had something to eat,” he said. “In those days we were subsistence living. That's the way we were. We were living one day to the next. We were thankful we started out the New Year with something to eat. We didn't have much at all, but we didn't know it. We were happy.”
Cooking it the Melton way
Traditionally there would have been lard involved in preparing the dinner. Butchering a hog or two would leave a family well situated with lard and such things.
There is now a movement back to lard cooking, Melton said.
But that's not how he prepares his collards and peas.
"I tell you what I use today, and I hate to say it, and Clemson would probably shoot me for saying it, but I use bacon grease," Melton said. "When I fry my bacon, I save it. I do it a little different than momma and them, and she had a can on the stove. I put mine in the refrigerator."
There is a twist or two there, though.
"To keep down the amount of it, I put a little bullion in it. About half and half is OK," Melton said. "My secret today is onion powder" rather than putting many onions in it as it cooks.”
Melton said that gave the collards some onion flavor without it being overwhelming. Save the onion to put into it until after it is cooked, he said.
"A lot of people pull the stems out,” he said. “Personally I don’t. I like the stems. And when preparing the leaves, cut them in one-inch widths and don’t shred them.”
To start cooking prep, get water hot in a pressure cooker before adding collards, Melton said.
"I put your first ones in there and let them wilt down and keep adding and keep adding until I get the pot pretty much full," Melton said.
Collards cook down such that a large pile of collards raw will only provide a small pile of collards cooked, he said.
At this point, Melton said he adds the bacon grease, bullion, salt, a small portion of sugar and onion powder.
"For a big old pot, a tablespoon of sugar is a lot," he said. "While they're wilting down, I like to bathe them in that sauce, all those flavors. I put the top on and cook it 10 to 15 minutes in the pressure cooker. I don't cook them to death."
Melton recommends a crock pot to cook peas and hog jowls or ham hock.
As he was growing up, Melton said his mother didn't have a crock pot, so the beans were cooked on the stovetop for hours before they were served at dinner.
As for cornbread, Melton said to use a mix and pop it into the oven.
And if folks want to put some historic authenticity into the cornbread, mix in some cracklins.
"A little extra pig fat," Melton said with a smile.