The history behind our Lowcountry New Year’s Eve cuisine and traditions

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CHARLESTON S.C. (WCBD) – Whether it’s having a fully cleaned home and laundry bin or eating 12 grapes at midnight, most families have ‘new years’ traditions. Here in the Lowcountry, there are multiple, and the ones in the Gullah Geeche community go back centuries.

A New Year’s Eve meal in the Lowcountry is much more than just a full plate, it’s about why the food is on the plate.

Sameka Jenkins, the owner of Carolimas, said a proper New Year’s Eve meal consists of hoppin’ johns made with field peas, collard greens, cornbread, and some type of pork. 

The hoppin’ johns was first published in historical cookbooks according to Amethyst Ganaway, Freelance Chef in New Mexico and North Charleston native, in the 1700s or 1800s. While black-eyed peas are typically used to represents coins and wealth, field peas are used in the Lowcountry.

Ganaway said that an old wives’ tale stated that hoppin’ john was created after the Civil War when the Union soldiers burned all of the crops and fields down to the ground and only left the field peas as they were traditionally used as fodder to feed live stock and help the soil.

At the New Year, the peas were all that were left to eat. However, she believes it was brought over with her ancestors and it was a tradition that was carried on. Ganaway, living in New Mexico now, said that field peas are so difficult to find outside of South Carolina that each year, she has her family send them via mail ahead of the New Year.

As for the other very important side, collard greens, mustard greens, or cabbage symbolize money and wealth in the coming year.

Pork symbolizes prosperity, though many have shied away from the meat in recent years. Jenkins said that you can also use a smoked turkey, or even fish to substitute. But Ganaway made sure to note not to switch to a chicken.

The main reason being because chicken scratch, peck around, and poke at what they want to eat, and you don’t want to go into the new year like that. You want to have something that is going to be really filling and nourishing. She added that while you can substitute as she has done many times before, it’s the notion behind the pork that matters.

Our ancestors, the people that came before us didn’t have access to a whole hog a lot of times, right. They didn’t have access to a whole pig so you would put those pieces of pig tail or a ham hock or pork knuckle. Something like that, you’d put in your pot, especially for the new year because again, this isn’t something we’d have all year to eat. 

Amethyst Ganaway, Freelance Chef  

But, of course, before eating comes the Watchnight service for those in Lowcountry. Though unable to continue this year in person due to the pandemic, it has been part of the Gullah Geeche tradition since New Year’s Eve in 1862—where on New Year’s Day 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted, and those enslaved were free.

Jenkins said the service, which typically begins at 9 p.m., goes until midnight. Inside, the pastor or reverend is praying while the watchnight is being asked the count down time left, beginning at 15 minutes till midnight. As the prayer continues, the last minutes of the year are counted in the dark.

At 12 o’clock, everyone stands up, the lights are turned on, celebratory hugging and kissing commences as the New Year is rung in. Jenkins said when you leave church is when you actually eat the New Year’s Eve meal. 

Ganaway said with COVID-19 and the trials of 2020, if you were unable to make your typical meals or go to your service or events, “it’s okay to just be okay.” She said it’s important to remember that you made it through another year and that you hold the traditions of the Lowcountry with you for when you can celebrate them in 2022.

For more on Carolimas, click here.

For more on Ganaway, click here.

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