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I've long been told that -- much to my mother's chagrin -- my first word was not "mama." It wasn't "papa" or "grammy" or "pawpaw" either. It wasn't even "pup," which would have made good sense considering I had a dog or three in tow soon after emerging from the womb. I was told my first recognizable utterance failed to bestow any loving label on a single living thing around me. Instead, my first word was "no" followed closely by "why."

Yet they were surprised I became a lawyer.

I've always wanted to understand the reason for something prior to doing it. So, when I was recently asked why we Southerners eat black-eyed peas, hog jowl and collards on New Year's Day, I was a little taken aback. I knew we always had them -- sans the collards since my mama didn't like greens, and she didn't fix anything she didn't like. Every generation of my family had cooked a pot of black-eyed peas with salt pork on the first day of the year without fail. But I couldn't tell you quite why, other than it was thought to bring good luck.

My mama's mama, Ruby, was a superstitious woman. She'd throw salt over her shoulder if she spilled some on the table. She never walked under an open ladder, and she nearly had a coronary the time I opened an umbrella indoors. I thought it humorous, but ridiculous.

So why was I buying peas, pork and collards at the store on New Year's Eve? I couldn't rightly tell you. But turns out, the fella asking me wasn't asking to know; he was asking to tell.

"You know who Gen. Sherman is?" he asked, and proceeded without awaiting my response. "William Tecumseh Sherman was a general in the Union Army. In the winter of 'eighteen and sixty-four', he marched through Georgia all the way to the sea, burning or taking everything in his path," he said.

"The Yankees didn't believe black-eyed peas were fit for human consumption. They used them and purple hulls for animal feed up North, so they passed over most of it. They cut the heads off the pigs, taking only the good cuts of meat. Southerners were left to survive the first part of January in the smoldering ruins of their land. If they were lucky, they had black-eyed peas and hog jowl."

The words "if they were lucky" rattled in my head as I seasoned my pot the next day. I researched about the March to the Sea, about Sherman's orders to not discriminate in the pillaging "between the rich -- who are usually hostile -- and the poor or industrious -- usually neutral or friendly." Those would have been my people, I thought -- the poor, industrious neutrals grateful for peas and salt pork.

And I was grateful, too, especially because I'm going to eat something else the rest the week. Everyone knows it's bad luck to eat it two days in a row. I wonder why ...

NAN Our Town on 01/05/2017

Print Headline: Peas be with you

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