The 26th annual New Year’s Day Blackeyed Pea Dinner at the Crown Expo Center on Jan. 1, which runs from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., is free and open to the public. “All are welcome,” said Lee Warren, Cumberland County’s register of deeds and principal organizer of this event. “If you have 10 people in from out of town, bring them. There is no charge, and we want everyone to feel welcome.”
Community, tradition and gratitude will be the special ingredients in 2019’s dinner. Friends, neighbors, families and new faces are invited to gather together to enjoy a traditional Southern New Year’s Day meal of black-eyed peas, collards, sweet potatoes and good ol’ Southern barbecue.
“2019’s dinner marks the 26th year we’ve been doing this,” said Warren. “This year’s dinner will be special because we are dedicating it to all of the first responders and volunteers who helped during the hurricanes. We want them to know how grateful we are.”
According to legend, when Union soldiers raided Confederate food supplies, they took everything but the black-eyed peas because they believed the peas were only animal fodder. Southerners knew better, and eating the peas helped them survive through the winter. The peas became symbolic of luck.
Black-eyed peas were also a staple food in the black community. So, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on the first day of January in 1863, peas featured large in those celebratory meals. Tradition has it that, henceforward, blackeyed peas should always be eaten on Jan. 1.
Between 2,500 and 3,000 meals are served at the New Year’s Day dinner at the Crown each year. Experience has taught Warren and his volunteers how much food to prepare. “When New Year’s Day falls on a Friday or a Monday,” said Warren, “many people take advantage of the long weekend and go out of town, so attendance is less. If the holiday falls on a Sunday, we get more people because folks stop by on their way home from church.”
On-site meal prep begins early so that ladies from the Cumberland County Schools system can begin serving at 11 a.m. Diners enjoy background gospel music and good conversation and fellowship along with the delicious food.
Meals are served until 2 p.m. Like all good cooks, Warren and his all-volunteer kitchen staff clean up as they go. “Once the collards are in the cooker,” Warren said, “we start washing and sanitizing.” Most years, they’r ready to turn out the lights and head home an hour or so after the last meal is served.
A bit of folklore advises that what you do on New Year’s Day, you will do all year long.
Taking this advice to heart, when we come together as a community on the first day of 2019 to share a traditional meal with gratitude for the heroes in our midst, we’re placing our bets that the year ahead will be filled with a sense of community, tradition and gratitude that prospers us all.