I lived in the Deep South for a decade in the 1970s and early 1980s. It had its plusses and minuses.
One of the plusses was winter never really arrived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Sure, it sometimes got cold enough at night for the water in the municipal fountain in Gulfport to freeze, and on very rare occasions, snow-dusted your car’s windshield. The average daytime temperatures in January are in the low 60s, with nighttime temps dipping to the mid-40s. I recall riding my motorcycle on New Year’s Eve in 1983 wearing a fairly light jacket.
It was during my time in Mississippi that I learned people in the South herald in the new year pretty much like everyone else (but with fewer layers of clothing). One less-than-ordinary tradition I discovered about two years into my residency in the Magnolia State was the first food you should eat after midnight is black-eyed peas, collard greens, salt pork (or some other sort of pig meat) and cornbread.
Why those foods?
Black-eyed peas are supposed to bring good luck to the new year. Some traditionalists recommend eating exactly 365 peas on New Year’s Day for a year full of good fortune. If you eat fewer than 365 (or 366 this year, since it’s a leap year), you will only have that number of days of good luck.
When the black-eyed peas are served with greens – which, when cooked properly, are a culinary delight – the peas represent coins, and the greens represent paper money.
Traditionalists eat smoked hog jowl as their pork, which is primarily used to flavor the peas and greens. I used salt pork because that’s how I was taught to make the dish by a very accomplished chef in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, when I waited tables at a restaurant there (mild-mannered newspaper reporter during the day, super waiter at night). I guess it doesn’t really matter since it’s there to represent prosperity and gluttony in the new year.
Cornbread is part of the after-midnight meal because it represents gold. It also is great for sopping up the liquids left on your plate from the rest of the meal.
I haven’t followed that tradition in maybe 10 years. It’s a rather labor-intensive dish to prepare.
First, greens tend to be sandy, although I never noticed any grittiness to my greens after a thorough rinse in the sink. Greens grow best in sandy soil, and A Fork’s Tale recommends filling your sink with water and soaking them for 10 minutes before cooking should do the trick.
There are a few things about timing to remember if you want great greens. You spend an hour making a pork-based broth. After adding the strips of greens, most recipes call for the greens to simmer in the broth for at least an hour to avoid tough and chewy greens.
If anybody knows how to cook authentic Southern greens, it’s Paula Deen. Here is her Food Network recipe for perfect greens:
1/2 pound smoked meat (ham hocks, smoked turkey wings, or smoked neck bones)
1 tablespoon House seasoning (recipe below)
1 tablespoon seasoned salt
1 tablespoon hot red pepper sauce
1 large bunch collard greens
1 tablespoon butter (after all, it is a Paula Deen recipe)
1 cup salt
1/4 cup black pepper
1/4 cup garlic powder
(House seasoning may be kept up to 6 months in an airtight container)
In a large pot, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and add smoked meat, house seasoning, seasoned salt and hot sauce. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 1 hour.
Wash the collard greens thoroughly. Remove the stems that run down the center by holding the leaf in your left hand and stripping the leaf down with your right hand. The tender young leaves in the heart of the collards don’t need to be stripped.
Stack six to eight leaves on top of one another, roll up and slice into 1/2- to 1-inch thick slices. Place greens in the broth with meat and add butter. Cook for 45 to 60 minutes, stirring occasionally. When done, taste and adjust seasoning.
Failed shortcut note: I tried making greens in my Instant Pot because it took way less time than the traditional method. Do not make the same mistake I did. The greens weren’t cooked as much as they should be, and it lacked the flavor you get when the greens swim in the broth for an hour.