Lucky Peas for a New Year

 , By Ronald Howard Livingston
on Monday, December, 31 2013 09:55:06 pm   , 1106 words  
Categories: Uncategorized , 56948 views


It's rather funny sometimes the things we each notice (and others largely ignore) based upon our interests. I was recently watching Burt Wolf's Travels and Traditions (an episode on Rome) wherein he talked at one point about the Galleria Colonna and showed a famous painting therein called Mangiafagioli ("The Bean Eater"), created by the Italian Baroque painter Annibale Carracci. The painting, Wolf stressed, is known for its realism. Yet, while the importance of its style was notable, I was particularly struck by the beans the subject was depicted eating. Being a Southerner, I grew up eating black-eyed peas and thus with the folk tradition that it is especially good luck to eat them on New Year's Day. One likewise thus hears the story that black-eyed peas were brought over to the southern United States from west Africa in association with the slave trade, were fed chiefly to slaves and stock, and were long not a popular food item in the South (particularly among the wealthy) until after the War Between the States.  Yet here I was viewing an image of Carracci's genre scene, oil on canvas, painted in the 1580's, which rather clearly portrays a European peasant man eating a bowl of black-eyed peas. Well, so much for the notion that black-eyed peas spread to the world from Africa by way of the American South!

One of four cultivated subspecies of cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata), black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata subsp. unguiculata), though popularly called "peas," are actually beans and have a long history of use--both peas, members of the genus Pisum, and beans are legumes, plants whose roots enrich the soil in which they grow by the fixation of nitrogen therein from the atmosphere.  (Originally the word bean was applied mostly to broad or fava beans, but eventually was used to refer to other similar plants and their seeds, including those of the New World genus Phaseolus, as well as beans of the genus Vigna. Indeed, cowpeas and several other beans had long been lumped in to the genus classification Phaseolus.)

Black-eyed peas are believed to have first been domesticated in western Africa. Even in prehistoric times, they were cultivated in India and China. To the Romans black-eyed peas were the fagiolo all'occhio used to create the dish known as puls, offered up to the goddess Demeter, goddess of the harvest. The Babylonian Talmud (compiled from various documents over the period of the 3rd to the 5th centuries) cites the tradition of the consumption of black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.  For example, a rabbi Nachmani, known as Abaye ("Little Father"), of Babylonia, listed rubiyah (Arabic lubia) as a food item that brought good luck and which therefore should always be on the table at Rosh Hashana. As early as the 1730's Sephardi Jews first arrived in Georgia, where they continue to live to this day. Other early Jewish settlers arrived in New York and Charleston, South Carolina.  It is believed by some that the Southern practice of consuming the beans at New Year's Day might have been influenced by the tradition of these early Jewish settlers.

Another explanation for the Southern tradition of black-eyed peas consumed for luck in the New Year has it that in the final days of the American Civil War the advancing troops of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman spared plots of field peas and field corn from pillage or destruction because such crops were considered unfit for consumption by humans.

A variant of the latter explanation is the story crediting the father of actor Rip Torn with further popularizing the consumption of black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for luck.  Rip's name is actually Elmore Rual Torn, Jr.(his middle name was originally Rudolph), son of Elmore Rual and Thelma Mary (Spacek) Torn. Rip's father also was known as Rip, and the actor is a cousin of actress Sissy Spacek. But this is not a biography or a filmography of the actor, nor even much in the way of a sketch of Elmore, Sr., who was an agriculturalist and an economist. It was the senior Torn, so the story goes, who was almost entirely responsible for the current popularity throughout the American South of eating blackeyed peas for luck on New Year's Day.

Although black-eyed peas (or cowpeas) long have been eaten in the South, they were for most of that time chiefly fed to livestock and were an easily grown occasional food source for poor farmers.  It was in 1909 when Athens (Henderson County), Texas, businessman J. B. Henry decided to begin growing the peas commercially. By the late 1930's and early 1940's several Athens canneries were "putting up" peas, "Home Folks" brand becoming one of the town's chief businesses, which operated until the early 1970's. For many years, this company marketed for New Year's Day a specially labeled product that it called "Good Luck Peas."

In 1947, Elmore Torn, Sr., was hired by the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce to help promote products of the area.  There was little, however, to promote because of the dearth of local businesses.  Besides a pottery, there was a cannery, one that canned black-eyed peas. Elmore had the local chamber print up hundreds of a flier he wrote extolling the lofty and longstanding culinary regard of the black-eyed pea. He maintained therein that in ante-bellum days rich and poor alike, even such luminaries as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, had eaten black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck. Just a little before Thanksgiving, for several years, Torn sent fliers and cans of Athens, Texas, black-eyed peas to food editors throughout the South. As writer C. F. Eckhardt writes in his online article "The Great Blackeyed Pea Hoax," "Elmore started the 'tradition,' not of eating blackeyed peas per se, but the specific 'tradition' of eating blackeyed peas for good luck on New Year's Day-a 'tradition' which had never existed before 1947."

A typical Southern New Year's Day meal often consists of black-eyed peas (for good luck) and boiled ("stewed") cabbage or collard greens (for money). One of my least favorite foods is cooked dried black-eyed peas or canned black-eyed peas cooked and canned using dried peas. One of my favorites is fresh, hulled black-eyed peas (with young snaps).  They are wonderful served over rice.  I grow black-eyed peas almost every year.  They are easy to grow and (like okra, another of my fav foods, especially dill pickled) thrive throughout the hot Texas summers, by which time other garden produce has shriveled and died.

Enjoy your black-eyed peas on New Year's Day.  May you have the best of luck all year.


How Now! How Neat!

 , By Ronald Howard Livingston
on Tuesday, November, 13 2012 11:44:49 pm   , 1016 words  
Categories: Uncategorized , 65278 views


A friend on a social-networking blog site once asked if bulls are born with little lumps on their heads where the horns grow? She also noted a cartoon her youngest child watched. He apparently knew that cow meant the females of the species and had commented that they have a "male cow in the cartoon" and thus surmised "there must be male cows someplace!"

A cow, of course, is the female of several species of animals: elephants, moose, and whales, for example, as well as those large domesticated bovines which we generally call cattle. In such instances, the males are generally referred to as bulls, as in bull elephant, bull moose, bull walrus, for example, and the young are called calves (calf in the singular). Cattle is the plural word we most often use to refer to members of the  genus Bos. Bos taurus are cattle breeds such as Angus, Hereford, Charolais, Shorthorns, also known as Durhams, and so on, which originated from European and west Asiatic wild species of cattle. Bos indicus cattle are the breeds associated with India and southeast Asia. The breed of Bos indicus bred in America is the Brahman. (Brahman cattle were the first breed of cattle developed in the United States, excluding the naturally selected Texas Longhorn, later given recognized breed and herd book status.)  Several beef breeds are mixtures of both of these domesticated  species: Santa Gertrudis, Brangus, Red Brangus, Beefmaster, and so on.

The word cattle, however, means all livestock, especially hoofed livestock: pigs, horses, donkeys, milk cattle, meat cattle, sheep, and goats. It is related to chattel, and derives from the Old French word catel, which means moveable property, as opposed to real property (land and buildings). (Even slaves were called chattel, a unit of personal property.)

Why do we have a domesticated animal that colloquially is referred to by the name we use for the female of the species? Cows, females of beef and milk cattle, and their male counterparts, bulls, are indeed livestock but obviously not horses, not pigs, not sheep, not goats---so, what are they (more precisely, what are they correctly called)?  Ever oil your baseball glove with a substance called neat's-foot oil? Well, only in that sense do we continue to utilize the best, most accurate, word for these large mammals: Cows are neat! Yep, they're nifty, especially if you own them and can make a living from them, but their actual name in English is neat. They are neat cattle.

There are cow neat, and there are bull neat. Really neat, huh! Too bad so few people nowadays know it or care to use it, such that we have let the word fall by the wayside and thus instead of being able to identify the animal specifically, we childishly settle for glaringly inaccurate "close enough" terms like cow and cattle.

Another term often used to indicate these large domesticated cloven-hoofed range and barnyard ungulates is ox (oxen in the plural). Although the term can be used in referring to any of several bovine mammals of the genus Bos or related genera, such as gaur, yak, buffalo, and bison, the term is most commonly used to mean a steer of at least four or five years of age that has been trained for work. The term was at one time even applied generally to any bovine (male or female) used to do work. The condition of being work animals has long been a criterion in the use of the term. In old records (such as tax lists) which consist in part in lists of property, oxen were listed separately and distinctly from animals noted therein as "cattle" or "cows."

All neat (cows and bulls) have horns, unless they are of a naturally hornless strain, called polled (or pollard) cattle, once commonly known also as muleys or mulleys (which term derives from maol in Scottish and Irish Gaelic and moel from Welsh). Angus (both Black Angus and Red Angus) are polled, as are some Herefords, called Polled Herefords. There is a Polled Shorthorn (Durham) breed. There was a breed once very popular that has declined in popularity in the United States called Red Polls. Texas Longhorns are actually not the descendants exclusively of Spanish mission cattle that went wild, but the descendants of English Longhorn Durhams brought to Texas from the Carolinas in the early years of the Anglo-American colonization of Texas. During the War Between the States, these cattle too went wild and bred with the wild Spanish cattle. So, the long horns are primarily due to the "shorthorn" (Durham) cattle (but the long-horned variety, Longhorn Durhams) that the colonists brought with them.

Horns, of course, are not on young calves. They grow from a bud by means of a growth ring and eventually become attached to the skull. Horns are composed largely of keratin, the key structural component found in nails (fingernails, toenails, claws, and hooves) and hair. The keratin and other proteins composing the horns grow around a core of bone and become a permanent sheath around and emanating from the bone core, but horns per se are not bone (unlike antlers of animals, such as deer, which are bone).

In seeking to be specific so as not to mean goats or sheep or any other livestock, neat were often referred to as horned cattle (whether horned or polled).

Some references, such as some dictionaries, now designate the term neat "obsolete" or "rare."  In other words, people have opted for imprecise terms such as cattle (livestock), cow (a female of any number of animals), and ox (an altered male bovine used to do work) to awkwardly, inaccurately refer to a single member of the species Bos taurus or Bos indicus.

A male of the genus Bos is not a cow, nor is an entire herd of these animals cows!  Wouldn't it be NEAT if we could restore a perfectly good old word to specifically and correctly designate an animal so much a part of the growth and development of civilization and a valuable part of our modern world economy?


A Word on Freedom

 , By Ronald Howard Livingston
on Thursday, September, 13 2012 08:56:00 pm   , 326 words  
Categories: Uncategorized , 36949 views


(This small essay was posted to my social network blog on 4 November 2008. Though published four years ago, the current presidential slate of mediocrity makes the piece as germane today as it was then.  What a pity that anymore such elections have become in the land of the free and the home of the brave a selection of "the lesser of two evils.")


Freedom of speech entails the right to ask questions and to suppose out loud.  It entails the right to be silent when you care to share nothing to a conversation or other situation.  Freedom is as much a matter of not doing as doing, exercising a choice.  (Universal service, for example, is not service; it is slavery.  Involuntary servitude is slavery and "service" against your will is involuntary servitude and certainly not freedom. When you choose to serve others you are exercising true freedom.)  Freedom of speech is part of your right to vote.  Freedom of speech is also exemplified by a decision NOT to vote, especially when one feels that those put forward for one's vote are not WORTHY of it.

Freedom of speech is a right, but often not a protection. You will be vilified, insulted, harassed, and maybe even threatened (and more rarely, complimented), for exercising this right.  Not voting does not cancel your right to speak. For by voting, or not, you have spoken. Freedom is about doing what you think best for yourself and for others about whom you care. No one should be told "You HAVE to make a choice, and you HAVE to vote." If you are not happy with candidates, haven't studied the issues, or just don't even want to participate, you have a right to abstain. Such is just plain common sense, and rudeness to those who abstain is repugnant and a poor reflection on the derogator, who thus is no exemplar of freedom.

A right not exercised is still a right.




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