What Are Black Eyed Peas? (The Legume, Not the Band)

I grew up in Massachusetts, and despite being only a short plane ride away from the southern states, I never encountered any real Southern cooking. Sure, I’d had fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits, but things such as grits, collard greens, or green tomatoes were completely foreign to me. And this is a shame, because they are pretty delicious. It wasn’t until a high school trip to Alabama that I sampled these delicacies for the first time. 

Another classic Southern ingredient that I was completely ignorant of is the black eyed pea. But what exactly is a black eyed pea? What do they taste like? When should one eat them? Let’s get it started, pump it, shake ya boom boom, and find out why some people “Just Can’t Get Enough” black eyed peas. 

What are black eyed peas?

If you are from a Northern state, like me, or really just anywhere that isn’t the American South, you may not be familiar with the culinary staple known as black eyed peas. They are small, kidney-shaped, cream-colored legumes particularly popular in Southern cooking. And if you ever see one up close, you’ll instantly understand where their name comes from. Each individual pea has a little black “eye” on their inner curve. 

Are black eyed peas beans?

Despite its name clearly indicating that it is a pea, so-called black eyed peas are actually a kind of bean. They are called peas, most likely, because, well, they look like peas, and people who originally named things weren’t necessarily expert botanists who knew all the subtle intricacies of the different members of the legume family, okay? 

What do black eyed peas taste like?

Black eyed peas are a type of bean, as mentioned above, so they have a bean-y flavor and texture. To be more specific, they have an earthy, slightly nutty flavor not unlike chickpeas. It may be an acquired taste for some, but as with most beans, these little guys are very versatile and can be used in a wide array of dishes.  

When do you eat black eyed peas?

Black eyed peas can be enjoyed any time of the year and at any time day or night—up to and including breakfast—but they are most associated with one particular holiday: New Year’s Day. It’s traditional to eat black eyed peas on the first day of the year in order to ensure good luck.

Why are black eyed peas lucky? 

The idea of eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck likely dates to the Civil War. Occupying Union troops raided Southern crops during the war, but they left black eyed peas behind because they were considered to be poor quality. This allowed Southerners to use them for sustenance to make it through the winter. Pretty fortunate, eh? Hence, black eyed peas’ association with a felicitous start to the year. 

But there’s no one agreed upon way to enjoy black eyed peas for good luck. The Spruce Eats has a good breakdown of these different methods of celebrating. For example, some people believe that 365 black eyed peas must be eaten on the first in order to ensure a full year of good luck. Others add a penny or dime to the pot before serving, and whoever receives it will be the luckiest of all. And for those who don’t want to put literal money into their food, black eyed peas are served with cornbread to represent gold and greens to represent paper money.

About the Author

Matt Crowley

Matt Crowley is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. He likes maple-flavored snacks, loves every kind of cheese, and is slowly learning to accept mushrooms.

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