After the ball in Times Square has dropped and toasts and good wishes are offered, it happens. The holidays are officially over and it is time to put away the presents and decorations, sweep up the confetti and get the New Year started. Like so many local holiday traditions, the New Year’s Day Black-eyed Pea Dinner at the Crown is part of what makes Fayetteville special. For close to a quarter of a century, people have gathered to share a good luck meal, socialize and start the new year in the best of all possible ways – sharing a meal in the midst of great company.
No one is exactly sure when the New Year’s Day Black-eyed Pea Dinner started, but it was in full swing in the 1970s and 80s with not just one, but two New Year’s Day Black-eyed Pea Dinners. Then Sherriff Otis Jones and his friend Willis Brown, who was a local attorney, each hosted their own dinner. Eventually, the two joined forces and moved the event to the Crown Coliseum.
Otis Jones died in 1987 or 1988 and when he did, the event died with him. In 1993, Lee Warren was talking with his father and his friend Owen Spears, who was a member of the North Carolina General Assembly. Warren’s father suggested that they revive the Black-eyed Pea dinner. It didn’t take much convincing. Warren and Spears brought it back for the first time in 1993. In 1996, Spears had a career change and Ed Grannis, the District Attorney, joined the team. When Grannis retired, Billie West became the new District Attorney and stepped up to help each year as well.
Grannis died this past October from complications of a heart procedure and will be sorely missed at the Black-eye Pea Dinner. Known as a man of integrity and for being a fair but compassionate public servant, his contribution to this event and to the community over the years is something to celebrate – and that is just what Warren intends to do at this year’s dinner. “Ed Grannis and his family were long-time partners and fellow hosts for this event,” said Warren. “This year’s dinner is dedicated to Ed Grannis. He was involved with the Black-eyed Pea Dinner since 1996. He was always hands on, but we’ve got a lot of good volunteers. His wife, Winnie, and their boys, Whitaker and Mcbride will be there helping. His best friend retired Gen. Dan McNeill will be there, too. We’ll all be there - honoring the memory of Edward W. Grannis.”
Grannis was a U.S. Army veteran and a graduate of Wake Forrest University. He served as the District Attorney for 35 years. “Even after he retired, Ed served on the North Carolina Department of Transportation Commission,” said Warren. “He had a real heart for community service, as do his wife and sons.”
With months and weeks of planning that go into this event, Warren is always grateful for the hundreds of volunteers that come out to help with every aspect of the dinner. It is not unusual for 3,000 or more to attend the event and it is the helping hands that show up year after year that make the Black-eyed Pea Dinner possible. “From cooking to serving to making sure everyone has fun, we look forward to all of that and to seeing people that come back year after year,” said Warren. “And sometimes it may have been a year since you’ve seen them. It is a way to stay connected with community. It is not a political event – it is open to anyone in the community and is free. It is a time when we can all give thanks together and good wishes to one another.” The Black-eyed Pea Dinner starts at 11 a.m. at the Crown.
Stories behind the dishes
For many, New Year’s Day is filled with traditions and superstitions - especially for Southerners. With the new year comes fresh starts and new beginnings. Many people consider it important to do what they can to ensure that it will be a good one. One of the most common ways to do this is through the food served on New Year’s Day. The superstitious (and the hungry) are invited to enjoy a great meal (and cover all their bases) at the Black-eyed Pea Dinner. While the event is very much about tradition, friendship and service to the community, the “lucky” foods are delicious and offer a fun way to kick off the new year.
The Black-Eyed Pea dinner includes much of the traditional Southern New Year’s fare. The menu includes collards, pork, corn bread and, of course, black-eyed peas. The food is saturated with flavor, but also with superstition and some interesting history about why people consider certain foods lucky. For example, pork symbolizes progress in a new year because pigs root forward as they eat.
The tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day is nothing new in the south, but it may have originated in even older cultures. In Jewish culture, in Babylonia circa 500 A.D., black-eyed peas were commonly eaten as good luck symbols to celebrate Rosh Hashana, which is the Jewish New Year. This tradition likely made its way to the southern United States through the Sephardic Jews who came to Georgia in the 1730s. Black-eyed peas became especially popular in the south during the civil war. Pre-Civil War the legumes were used for food for cattle. As the Union armies came through and burned all of the other crops, the peas were eaten out of necessity. They are drought resistant, which made them that much more appealing during dry years. Traditionally these peas represent prosperity in the coming year. They are symbolic of coins and swell in size as they cook. There are even sayings that are associated with this belief in lucky peas. One common phrase is “Eat poor on New Year’s, and eat fat the rest of the year.” Black-eyed peas are usually prepared with pork.
Collard greens are another Southern New Year’s tradition aimed at bringing luck and prosperity to those who eat them on New Year’s Day. Like the black-eyed pea, the popularity of collard greens came about during the Civil War. While the Union armies left collards untouched because they were considered food for animals, this plant is packed with valuable nutrients. As far as bringing prosperity on New Year’s, their leafy green appearance represents paper money. Green is also a color symbolic of hope and growth, both valuable traits for a new year.