If 2011 wasn’t the year you were hoping it would be, put 2012 on the right track by attending the Black-Eyed Pea Dinner on New Year’s Day hosted by Cumberland County Register of Deeds Lee Warren, Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West and Ed Grannis, retired District Attorney and N.C. Department of Transportation board member. The din-ner is at the Crown Coliseum Expo Center from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.
The Black-Eyed Pea Dinner has a tradi-tional Southern New Year’s Day menu of black-eyed peas, candied sweet potatoes, collard greens, barbeque and bread. Each item includes symbolism and meaning dat-ing back for generations.
Black-eyed peas are a Southern symbol for luck. The legend dates back to the Civil War in Vicksburg, Miss., when the resi-dents of Vicksburg were under siege and starving. They had the luck to find black-eyed peas to help survive starvation, securing the legume’s place in history and tradition. Sweet potatoes are a symbol of strength through strong roots. Collards symbolize money and pork is symbolic of progress — because pigs root forward rather than backward like some barnyard animals.
This is the 19th year that Warren has hosted the event, but the Black-Eyed Pea Dinner has a history that dates back to Sheriff Ottis F. Jones, who served Cumberland County for 14 years through the 1970s and ‘80s. Warren explains, “Back in the early- to mid-’70s, there was a black-eyed pea dinner that was put on by our former sheriff, Ottis Jones and local attorney, Willis Brown. Well, Sheriff Jones died in 1987. The event stopped with him.”
After Warren took office, he wanted to show his appreciation to the community. “I believe it was in 1993, I was talking with my father and a friend of mine named Owen Spears. Owen was a member of the N.C. General Assembly. We were talking with my father about things we’d like to do, since we both held political office, to let people know we appreciate them and that they would not just hear from us every four years. My dad said, ‘Well you should bring back the black-eyed pea dinner.’ So we did and we’ve been doing that ever since,” said Warren.
As time has moved on, so have the hosts of the dinner. “Mr. Spears stopped serving in the (North Carolina) house about 1996 and at that time, Ed Grannis, who had been the district attorney here since the early ‘70s, came on board with me. The two of us hosted until last year when Ed retired. Billy West was elected district attorney, so Ed and I invited Billy to be a part of the dinner,” Warren said, adding that “It’s always been very well attended. We’ve had the lieutenant governor attend on a number occasions, a number of council of state and representatives to the legislature have come, so have Congressmen. We always have a very big time.”
The event takes months of preparation and “a lot help from a lot of our friends” to serve close to 4,000 residents, said Warren. The hosting families cook the food, starting days ahead of time. It’s been well worth the effort, according to Warren, “There are people who have been attending this dinner for 18 or 19 years. It’s a tradition in our community. After each dinner my wife and I will say, ‘Well, so-and-so didn’t make it this year. I think this is the first they’ve missed it.’ We always are happy to see people year after year.”
The Black-Eyed Pea Dinner is open to the public at no cost.
Photo: A sampling of the tasty fare from last year’s black-eyed pea dinner.