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Why do we eat cabbage and black eyed peas?

Cabbage and black eyed peas are traditional foods that are eaten on New Year’s Day in many parts of the American South. There are several theories behind these culinary traditions, which have origins going back hundreds of years.

The History Behind Eating Cabbage

Eating cabbage on New Year’s Day is a long-held tradition in many cultures. It dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe when cabbage was considered a symbol of prosperity, money and wealth for the new year. This was due to its round shape and abundance as a winter crop.

When European settlers came to the American colonies, they brought cabbage with them and the tradition of eating it for good luck at the start of the new year. This practice was adopted in the southern United States, where cabbage grew well and became a staple ingredient in many dishes.

Some key facts about the history of eating cabbage on New Year’s:

  • Cabbage was an important crop for early American colonists and farmers. It was hearty, stored well and provided sustenance through harsh winters.
  • German and Irish immigrants helped popularize cabbage dishes like sauerkraut and corned beef and cabbage in the South.
  • During the Civil War in the 1860s, cabbage was a key component of Confederate soldiers’ diets and available when other fresh produce was scarce.
  • Eating cabbage on New Year’s became a recurring part of southern New Year’s Day traditions and meals around this time.

Cabbage is also seen as a symbol of wealth because if you have a cabbage harvest, you have food to last through winter. For poor agrarian families, a good cabbage crop meant food security.

Why Black Eyed Peas for Good Luck

Like cabbage, black eyed peas also have a long history as a Lucky New Year’s food. They are thought to bring prosperity and good fortune in the coming year. There are a few origins of this tradition:

  • In the American South, eating black eyed peas dates back to the Civil War era. The war ravaged crops and food supplies, but black eyed peas were durable and easy to grow. They helped sustain the Confederate Army and civilians during the war. Eating them on New Year’s commemorates their role as a lifesaving crop.
  • The traditional Jewish dish of rice and beans, called hopping john, is said to have fueled Confederate soldiers. The dish was later adopted by southern Americans. The peas represent coins or money, signaling future financial prosperity.
  • Ancient cultures viewed black eyed peas as a symbol of fortune and luck. In Western Africa and ancient Egypt, black eyed peas were believed to summon luck or deter evil spirits. This superstition came over to the Americas with the slave trade.

No matter the exact origins, the spicy, protein-rich flavor of cooked black eyed peas made them a staple southern New Year’s dish meant to signal good luck.

When Did These Traditions Start?

The traditions of eating cabbage and black eyed peas go back hundreds of years, but seemed to solidify in the American South during the Civil War era in the 1860s. Some key years:

  • 1776 – Black eyed peas and rice were thought to have been served to American colonists after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
  • 1863 – Historical letters show Confederate soldiers were issued black eyed peas and cabbage as food rations in 1863 during the Civil War. They became known as important staple crops that sustained the South.
  • 1864 – By New Year’s of 1864, the dishes were ingrained into southern New Year’s Day traditions to commemorate the past year and hope for good fortune, health and prosperity in the new year.

The rituals of eating hopping john and cabbage for New Year’s luck cemented during the war and carried on as enduring southern traditions.

Regional Versions and Preparations

Cabbage and black eyed peas are prepared in some unique regional ways across different parts of the South:

Hoppin John

  • In South Carolina, hoppin john contains black eyed peas, pork belly or bacon, onions, brown rice, and seasonings.
  • A Texas version has pinto beans and cornbread instead of rice.
  • Virginians often add smoked ham hocks.
  • Some cooks in Mississippi and Alabama make red beans and rice instead of black eyed peas.

Cabbage Dishes

  • North Carolina serves cabbage with corn bread stuffing.
  • In Mississippi, they make a raw cabbage salad with citrus dressing.
  • Kentucky favors hearty cooked cabbage with bacon.
  • Louisiana makes a spicy cabbage soup called caldo verde.

While recipes vary, cabbage and black eyed peas in some form tie the South together through food traditions each New Year’s Day.

The Meanings Behind the Traditions

Eating these lucky dishes on New Year’s Day is rife with symbolism and meaning for southerners:

Wealth and Prosperity

Black eyed peas represent coins or money to bring economic fortune in the new year. Cabbage’s round shape connotes the circular nature of life and its ability to flourish in winter shows lasting sustenance.


These foods sustained southerners through difficult times, signaling their role in providing health. The hardy nature of cabbage and beans gave hope.

Remembering the Past

For southerners, these New Year’s foods honor the sacrifices of soldiers and civilians who survived war and scarcity. Eating them pays homage to tradition.

Luck and Protection

These dishes summon good luck and ward off bad spirits or energy as part of their symbolism in ancient cultures. Southerners absorbed these beliefs into their rituals.


Cabbage and black eyed peas have become ingrained into southern New Year’s cuisine due to their:

  • Storied roles as staple foods that sustained the South through periods of strife and scarcity
  • Cultural symbolism invoking prosperity, health, remembrance of the past and summoning of good fortune
  • Hearty, nutritious qualities that warm in winter and feed families
  • Abundant regional availability allowingthem to become customary

On New Year’s Day, southerners sip pot likker from black eyed peas and crunch into braised cabbage with the hope these time-honored traditions will bring luck and plenty in the year ahead.