• Charlie Leonard

Collard Greens and Black-Eyed Peas—The history of New Year's Day food and where to find it

Gaston County is a haven for history and beloved holiday traditions. For the upcoming New Year, there’s one more tradition that you need to know—and it just happens to be delicious.

Jackson's Cafeteria's Collards and Black-Eyed Peas - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

No matter how your year went, it’s important to get the New Year started off on the right foot. If you’re superstitious, that means finding any means necessary to manifest some good fortune for the coming 365 days. What if I told you there’s a way to make sure that your next year is filled with health, wealth, and prosperity, and you can find it in Gaston County? Interested? Of course, you are!


For many years, North Carolinians have kicked off the New Year with four essential foods: ham, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. Our State Magazine explains that there’s a unique method behind why each food group is important for a prosperous New Year.


First and foremost, the meal needs to be eaten on New Year's Day. Intuitively, it makes sense to start your New Year right on the very first day, but there are a couple of explanations as to why. Some say that an inexpensive meal on New Years Day represents thriftiness or frugality. Other explanations come from what the ingredients themselves represent.


Ham


When it comes to ham, a collection of North Carolina folklore assembled in the mid-1900s by Frank C. Brown recalled an account of an unknown Union County man who said it’s good luck to cook a hog’s head for New Years’. Thankfully, there’s no need for you to find a whole hog’s head; a simple slice or two will suffice.

Carved Ham - Photo Courtesy of Belmont's Specialty Foods

It’s been theorized that a fresh ham was a metaphor for counting your blessing, or examining what prosperity you had at the time. A more straightforward reason is that a pig, when digging around in the mud, will root their snouts forward, indicating progress. Therefore, eat ham on New Year’s to create momentum for the year to come. When looking for the perfect slice of ham, don’t skimp on the size; a fatter pig means a fatter wallet.


Black-Eyed Peas


Black-eyed peas date back even further than the mid-1900s. In ancient Jewish culture, black-eyed peas were eaten on Rosh Hashana, which is the Jewish New Year that occurs in the fall. During the Civil War, the practice caught on with white southerners who had nothing else to eat after raids by the Union Army. According to the legend, the only foods left were salted pork and black-eyed peas, deemed unworthy to eat by General Sherman. From that point forward, black-eyed peas were considered to be lucky, as this was the only food not taken.


Likewise, Black southerners created a tradition during the same era. The tradition also held a particularly special value with enslaved people at the time. Some say that when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, the formerly enslaved people had only black-eyed peas to celebrate with. Once considered a crop fit only for livestock, black-eyed peas were turned to out of necessity and transformed into a symbolic and well-loved tradition. Ever since, the black-eyed pea has been a feature in African-American cuisine and has evolved to be a staple in the culinary genre of soul food.

Southern Flavor's Black-Eyed Peas - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

When you eat your black-eyed peas, remember those who came before you, paving the way through hardship and tenacity for this tradition. As lore has it, make sure to eat exactly 365 if you can—anything less is limiting your luck, but anything more is extra days of bad luck.


Collard Greens


The tradition of eating collard greens on New Years Day is actually newer compared to the other foods. Cabbage was the go-to green for North Carolinians a few generations ago. Even farther back, the Danish ate kale and the Germans ate sauerkraut to kick off the New Year. Collard greens are typically one of the only fresh vegetables that you can find in January, so their place in the New Year’s food repertoire is as practical as it is prudential.

Collard Greens and Fried Chicken, Chicken King - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

The reasoning behind eating collard greens is simple. They’re green, so it looks like money. It’s been said that every bite of collard greens is $1000 in your pocket. That’s the best excuse there has ever been to eat your greens.


Cornbread


Eating cornbread used to not be such a big deal. Simply put, cornbread was just the typical side dish at the Southern table, so there wasn’t any real reason to consider it special. Now, that’s exactly why it’s special to eat.

Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

Cornbread, just like ham, makes us stop and remember what we have and where we came from. Alternatively, cornbread also comes to symbolize gold due to its exterior that’s temptingly rich and decadent. Whether you’d prefer to count your blessings or acquire more wealth in the future, opt for cornbread on your New Year’s Day.

Where to Find Your New Year's Day Food


If you’re thinking about making a DIY assembly of the ingredients, there are several businesses in Gaston County to consider. Fresh ham can be found at Will’s Doggn’ It Deli and Market in Ranlo.

Will's Doggin' It Deli and Market - Chris Rodarte, Gaston Outside

The String Bean in Belmont is another good place to find ham, specifically at the deli counter of the bistro and market hybrid. You can also head to Belmont Specialty Foods at their deli counter for ham, and look along the walls for cornmeal to make your very own cornbread.


For collard greens and black-eyed peas, you can head to the Gastonia Farmers Market in Gastonia for a selection of local produce. Additionally, head to Home Harvest at the intersection of New Hope Road and East Ozark Avenue. to find locally grown produce that’s affordable and accessible.

Grits N Greens - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

If you’d rather have the whole meal at once without any personal assembly, Gaston County has that covered too. Grits N Greens Southern Cuisine in downtown Lowell is a good place to start. The local restaurant is a haven for classic Southern cooking, serving all the favorites like ham, collard greens, different varieties of beans and peas, and cornbread on a regular basis.

Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

Another staple is Jackson’s Cafeteria in Gastonia. The cafeteria features ham, cornbread, and a variety of other Southern classics that you can pick up and take home. Both restaurants will be open for you on New Year’s Day.


Other Southern Classics of Gaston County


If you can’t get your good luck meal in time for New Year’s Day, do not fear. Gaston County is full of great Southern food restaurants that are guaranteed to start any day off on the right foot.

Southern Flavor - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

Southern Flavor is exactly that type of restaurant. Located in the Eastridge Mall food court, Southern Flavor is some of the best mall food you can find. The menu features favorites like fried chicken and fish, with sides like black-eyed peas, collard greens, okra, biscuits and more.


Down the road in downtown Gastonia is Smith’s Soul Food Bistro, which will be opening in January 2021. The focus will be on soul food, but additionally, Smith’s Soul Food Bistro will also give job training and employment via a vocational program, aimed towards individuals who need a “second chance.”

Upcoming Smith's Soul Food - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

Spread throughout Gaston County is the Chicken King, with locations in Mount Holly, Belmont and Gastonia. The local Charlotte-area chain checks all the classic Southern food boxes, with main dishes like fried chicken, country fried steak, pork chops, chicken and dumplings and more on a rotating basis. Order one of their country sides like collard greens or fried okra to complete your experience.

Grandma Hoyt's - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

Finally, more country cookin’ buffet style can be found at Grandma Hoyt’s Country Buffet in Bessemer City. The daily menu includes favorites like country style steak, fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, and flounder, with sides like fried okra and squash, mashed potatoes, green beans, cornbread, and more. For just under $12, it’s all you can eat of Grandma Hoyt’s over 100 year old recipes.