XOTV WEEKLY: Finding Comfort in a New Holiday Tradition
I remember the day that I found out about the murder of George Floyd. I had just turned twenty-two and was on my way to graduating from university. Like every other morning, I started my day by scrolling through the news, and there was a snippet of an article about the death of a Black man in Minneapolis in police custody. This wasn’t surprising to me. This is the reality of being a Black person in the United States. These stories have sadly become commonplace. It wasn’t until later that night that I saw massive protests occurring in Minneapolis and began to pay closer attention. Over the next couple of weeks, those protests would spread to every state and around the world. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and Elijah McClain tragically joined the list of Black people killed by police. From Instagram, Twitter, and every news outlet, people were talking about Black Lives Matter. The Black Lives Matter Movement isn’t new to me though. I remember in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed 17-year old Trayvon Martin, first hearing about the group. Then, they were then a major organizing presence in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 following the murder of Michael Brown by police. Seeing #BLM all across social media reminded me that things hadn’t changed in the seven years that the organization has existed.
For months, I lived in a space of uneasiness. I wasn’t an organizer; I wasn’t on the front lines; I wasn’t a policymaker; I wasn’t an influencer, and yet I felt exhausted. I was exhausted seeing people who look like me being slaughtered, beaten, and bruised by the hands of police. I felt helpless and still feel helpless in this fight against systemic racism. For the first time, I began to better understand the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. There is an emotional and spiritual toll that a movement can take from you. It’s not just one march or one demonstration or one call to your senator. It’s a constant presence in every moment of your life.
As we were heading into the holiday season, I couldn’t help but reflect on the year that we’ve had. It has been a long year. A year filled with tragedy and loss, but also a year of community and empathy. After experiencing the hypervisibility of Black pain and suffering, I needed a moment of Black joy, so for the first time, I’m excited to celebrate Kwanzaa this year. Throughout my life, my family has celebrated Kwanzaa a handful of times. There were a couple of Kwanzaa related crafts like black, red, and green construction paper placemats, and some half-hearted stories about each of the days of Kwanzaa. It just wasn’t a tradition that we took part in.
Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, a professor of Black Studies at California State Long Beach. Following the Watts Riots of 1965, Dr. Karenga wanted to find a way to celebrate the rich culture and heritage of the Black community. By combining several African harvest festivals, Dr. Karenga created a uniquely African American tradition. Kwanzaa takes place from December 26 to January 1. Each day symbolizes a different principle and is represented by the lighting of a candle. The seven principles are unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). Because the Black community is extremely diverse and not a monolith by any means, it is up to each individual how they want to celebrate on each of the days. For me, this is a time to celebrate the rich food tradition of my people. Food is an integral part of the Black community. Our food traditions are vast and have heavily influenced American cuisine as we know it today. It ranges from gumbo in Louisiana to barbecue in North Carolina to the classic fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. These dishes all have deep and intricate stories that are directly tied to the struggles and perseverance of the Black community.
One of my favorite food traditions is eating black-eyed peas and collard greens with cornbread on New Year's Day. This is a tradition that can be found all across the American South in various forms, but most likely originated from enslaved Africans. From Hoppin’ John to Peas with Ham, there are many variations of the same dish, but ultimately the idea is the same: slow-cooked black-eyed peas and collard greens served to bring prosperity and wealth in the new year. Traditionally, collard greens are stewed down in a rich broth made from ham hock, or bacon until they are supple and full of flavor. The peas have similar preparation that takes their humble status to sheer culinary perfection. The peas stand for pennies, while the green folds of the collard greens symbolize dollars, and cornbread is served on the side as a representation of gold.
While Kwanzaa is celebrated in vastly different ways across the United States, it is ultimately a time to reflect on the beauty of Black people and culture, and I could definitely use some of that joy heading into the new year.
New Year’s Day Black Eyed Peas and Collard Greens
Every family has their own recipe for this special New Year’s Day meal. This recipe is the most pared down version with just a few simple ingredients. It’s simple, yet highly effective. Feel free to jazz it up with additional spices and hot peppers.
- 1 pound dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 onion, peeled and quartered
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 jalapeno, cut in half
- 1 pound smoked ham hock (or slab bacon cut into chunks)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
- 1 pound collard greens, cut into ribbons
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- Sherry vinegar, to taste
- Drain the peas and place them in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add ham, onion, smashed garlic, bay leaf, salt, and pepper and cover with 8 cups of water. Turn the heat to high.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Skim off any foam that rises to the top. Simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours or until the peas are tender. While the peas are cooking, add water as necessary to keep the liquid level 2 cm above the beans. Stir occasionally.
- Once the beans are tender, turn off the heat and taste the broth for salt and adjust the seasoning. Remove the ham hock or bacon. Chop the meat and set aside.
- Place a wide skillet with the olive oil over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the minced garlic, crushed red pepper, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cook for 1 minute, or until the garlic has softened but not browned. Add the collard greens and stir. Add 1 cup of water to help the greens to wilt. Add the chopped ham and reduce heat to medium. Cover the pan, leaving the lid slightly ajar and cook until the greens are soft, about 20 minutes. Taste for salt and adjust seasoning as necessary.
- To serve, place the greens and meat in a bowl, then top with the brothy black-eyed peas. Finish each bowl with a splash of sherry vinegar. Serve with a side of cornbread.
About the Author:
Brenna Knight is a writer and content creator. She recently graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor's in Anthropology. She is passionate about sharing stories that showcase the intersections between food, culture, and social justice. In her free time, she enjoys reading and scoping out the best cup of coffee.