Southern recipes for wealth, health and luck this New Year’s Day
When I moved to New Orleans from Boston 10 years ago knowing almost no one, I had a mental list of holidays to fill. New Year’s Day was not among them — until my brand-new friend Jessica Knesel invited me over.
I wandered into her family’s suburban house in midafternoon on Jan. 1, woozy from the night before. It wasn’t a party, exactly. No one wore nice clothes. Her dad had the TV on too loud. People grabbed beers from the outdoor fridge. I was not the only one crabby or hungover or worn out. No company behavior. It was just what you do on New Year’s Day if you are the Knesels, and countless other families across New Orleans, Louisiana and the South as a whole.
As an avid reader of food writing, I knew of the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and some sort of greens on New Year’s Day. I had just never met anyone who upheld it, let alone in such a matter-of-fact way as Jessica’s mom, Carliss Knesel.
Carliss is a retired banker, mamaw and crocheter who is given to quoting the classic south Louisiana line, now the title of a New Orleans cookbook, “Who’s your mama, are you Catholic and can you make a roux?” If she’s going to drink, it’s usually Sambuca.
Interviewing her about her New Year’s Day tradition is an exercise in friendly terseness.
For Carliss, New Year’s Day is automatic.
“We grew up with black-eyed peas, cabbage and some sort of pork,” she said. The beans for luck, the cabbage for money, “the pork, believe it or not, was for health.” She’s hosted since her mother died in the 1980s. In other parts of the South, people eat collards instead of cabbage and mix the rice and peas together for Hoppin’ John.
Nothing’s really changed, except that she changed the start time. “Mom ‘n’ ‘em, they always ate at noon,” she said. Carliss hosts in midafternoon, “’cause I’m too damn lazy to get up at 7 in the morning.”
Early on she had a crowd of dad, grandmother, married siblings and little kids. People moved away, got divorced, the kids grew up and brought friends “and it just evolved into more of an open house than a sit-down meal.”
The menu works perfectly for that: Everything can be reheated or eaten at room temperature. It’s “something you just throw together — easy to serve, easy to cook,” she said.
More:Red beans and rice: The history of the iconic Louisiana food is centered on women
So about that cooking. Asked about her recipes, Carliss said, “It really isn’t anything that’s recipe-worthy. You just cook the stuff.”
You cook beans the way you cook beans. You stew the cabbage with a little bit of pork and onions. If you roast a ham, you baste it with a full-sugar Coca-Cola — pour some over the ham every half hour. Other people use pineapple juice or root beer. The point is to get a crackling sugar glaze on that pork. She also makes dinner rolls, just to have some bread in the meal.
Over those eight years, every time I was in town on New Year’s Day, I rolled in at 3 p.m. to eat with the Knesels on Carliss’ fancy crocheted tablecloth. And now I feel superstitious about eating luck and wealth on Jan. 1. It’s something I have to plan for, not automatic. But it feels right.
“We always just like to start the new year with a nice meal with family and friends,” Carliss said. “For a city, we’re small-town. And we stubbornly cling to our traditions.”
A note on vegetarianism. Traditionally, these dishes are made with pork. I may throw something in if I have it on hand, but I rarely do. Meatheads may scoff at my smoked paprika and vinegar hack to replace the pickled and smoked flavors of various pork products, but it works. Adjust all seasonings in these recipes to taste. Serve with white rice and Louisiana-style hot sauce, such as Crystal or Tabasco.
Adapted from “The New Orleans Cookbook” by Rima and Richard Collin, 1975, bought by my mother in the ‘80s and given to me when I moved south.
1 tbsp. vegetable oil2 small heads green cabbage1 cup onion, coarsely chopped1 tsp. smoked paprika1 tbsp. apple cider vinegarSalt, black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste
Quarter and core the cabbages, then cut into pieces about 2-by-3 inches, or as you like them but not too small. Heat the oil over medium heat and saute the onion until just browning. Add all other ingredients, cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about one hour. Depending on the age of the cabbage, you may need to add a bit of water (or beer) to avoid sticking.
Adapted from “The Prudhomme Family Cookbook,” 1987, bought at a flea market near Tuskegee, Alabama, while doing book research.
1 pound dried black-eyed peas, preferably Camellia2 tsp. smoked paprika and 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar, or to taste2 tbsp. vegetable oil1 1/2 cups onion, chopped1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped1/4 cup celery, chopped5 cloves garlic, chopped fine2 bay leaves1 tsp. dried thyme1 pinch baking powder (optional)Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
First, soak the peas in salted water. You can do this overnight or use the quick method: Boil for five minutes, then let sit for an hour. Drain and rinse.
Heat the oil in a large pot and saute the onion, pepper and celery until golden. Add the garlic toward the end to avoid burning. Add everything else except the baking powder and add water to cover. (Heating the water in a kettle will speed things up.) Add the baking powder — this makes the peas cook faster.
Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer, cover and cook until the beans are done, stirring every so often and checking to see whether you need to add water. You want the dish to be thick at the end, not soupy. Depending on their age, with baking powder, this may take anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours.
Danielle Dreilinger is an American South storytelling reporter and the author of the book "The Secret History of Home Economics." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-236-3141.