Here in the Midwest we have no enduring food traditions associated with the new year, unless we prepare a family recipe or a meal with an ethnic significance. In the game of free associations, the phrase "New Year's food" doesn't elicit a popular answer.
Not so in the southern United States, where the traditional New Year's feast of black-eyed peas is based on ritual and superstition. According to some sources, the black-eyed pea has been a fixture on the southern table for at least 300 years. Eating black-eyed peas on Jan. 1 is thought to ensure good luck and prosperity in the new year. Sometimes this symbolism is perfected by cooking a dime in the pot of black-eyed peas.
One of the reasons black-eyed peas, or cowpeas, which are something of a mystery north of the Mason-Dixon Line, have never caught on in these parts is that they are difficult to grow here. They are cultivated like beans but require a longer growing season than we generally have in the Midwest.
Also, I suspect that northern attitudes have been influenced by long-standing regional prejudices. This would account for northern disdain for southern comfort foods and the stigma attached to such foods as okra, crayfish and parts of the hog that aren't pork chops or bacon. (As an aside and in the interests of accuracy, we should note that northerners also eat all of the unsavory components of the hog, but they hide them in hot-dogs and sausage.)
While black-eyed peas may be eaten on New Year's Day as a side dish or in a variety of recipes, the classic southern concoction is a pea-and-rice dish called Hoppin' John. Recipes vary in the degree of heat and spice. I read a number of unnecessarily complicated recipes on the Internet and came back to this simple classic from Craig Claiborne.
Adjust the heat by adding more red pepper flakes or a seeded and diced jalapeno. The recipe can be doubled and tripled to feed more New Year's Day guests.
1/8 pound streaky bacon or salt pork, cut into half-inch cubes
1/3 cup diced carrots
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
2/3 cup finely chopped onion
10 ounces fresh or frozen black-eyed peas
1 whole fresh garlic clove
1 1/4 cups water
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1 cup rice, cooked
1 ripe tomato, cored and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 pound sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
1 cup finely chopped whole scallions
Cook bacon or prok in a saucepan, stirring often, until crisp. Add the carrots, celery and onion and cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Add the peas, garlic, about 1 1/4 cups water to barely cover, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper flakes. Bring to a boil and let simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 40 minutes, until tender but not mushy. Remove from heat.
Arrange the hot rice in the center of a platter. Spoon the pea mixture, including liquid, over the rice. Garnish by arranging tomato chunks around the platter and sprinkling grated cheese and chopped scallions over the top.
Makes 4 to 6 servings