As I was getting ready to prepare the annual dish of Hoppin' John, I got curious as to why I do that. I don't think I ever prepare black-eyed peas any other day of the year, but it's a requirement for New Year's. I didn't think I'd let it go with "because my family eats black-eyed peas on New Year's," which, although it's as good a reason as any, I still wondered why we do.
After an exhaustive search of a few long minutes in numerous (a few) web links, I've found two main theories. The first one, which makes the most sense for why my family picked up the tradition, given our provenance, relates to the Civil War. The story is that when Union troops came through, particularly in the case of Sherman's March to the Sea, they stripped the fields of all edible crops. However, they considered black-eyed peas or "field peas" to be inedible, fit only for livestock, so they left them. The remaining crop was one of the few food sources left available to the resident Southerners.
The other tradition is from the Talmud, indicating that rubiya, or black-eyed peas, should be eaten for good luck on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. However, there seems to be some controversy over whether the word is mistranslated in Aramaic, and it might mean fenugreek.
The source of the crop is likely West Africa, but I didn't know that black-eyed peas are widely grown in Asia as well. They're served in curries in Indonesia, but as a sweet dessert in Vietnam.
Here's a link to my favorite recipe.
Whether your good luck food is black-eyed peas, or grapes, or something else, may your 2014 be lucky!