People around the world are making plans for celebrating the arrival of the new year and food will play a big part in starting the year off right. From lentils and sausage in Italy to soba noodles in Japan, almost every culture has their own idea of what foods should be eaten on New Year’s Day to ensure prosperity in the coming months.
We Southerners are no different. Down in my neck of the woods, eating black-eyed peas and collard greens on the first day of January is the formula if you want money to come your way in the new year. The tradition is actually less of “Eat this and get rich,” and more of “Don’t eat this and go broke.” Legend has it that every pea represents a coin that will come your way and every bite of greens will become foldin’ money in the wallet.
In my youth, this New Year’s tradition was hosted by my aunt and uncle at their home out in the country. My parents would pack us up in the station wagon, hair still smelling of firecracker smoke from the night before, and head out to my aunt and uncle’s farm for a big lunch of easy money.
We would arrive to the intoxicating aroma of black-eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread wafting from my aunt’s kitchen. For you folks not familiar with Southern cooking, collard greens may sound like pretty dull fare, but the addition of a select ham hock or two and a long, slow simmer will bring out the best in a bunch of collards.
As long as I am explaining a few of the nuances of Southern cuisine, I may as well bring all my Yankee friends up to speed on the ham hock. Anatomically speaking, the ham hock is the extreme lower end of a swine’s hind leg, just above the ankle. When lovingly smoked along with the rest of brother pig’s hind-quarter, the ham hock becomes an essential flavoring ingredient in all sorts of savory Southern delicacies.
My aunt’s table would be set with large bowls of the aforementioned food and we children would set upon our plates like starving bears as we proceeded to stuff dreams of wealth down our necks. In retrospect, I never seemed to eat enough on that day to conjure up sufficient cash for a motor bike the following summer.
Now, this bit of history and explanation has served to bring me around to the point of my little story – sugar.
I know my next statement runs the the risk of offending a lot of fellow Southerners and stirring up all kinds of disagreement, but here goes: Sugar should never be part of a cornbread recipe.
In a perfect world, cornbread is a simple mix of cornmeal, eggs, oil and water cooked in a hot cast iron skillet until a deep brown crust covers the exterior. Add butter to a piping hot wedge of the stuff and you have the perfect accompaniment to almost any traditional Southern meal. Cornbread is part of the main course, not dessert.
Sugar is a key ingredient in much Southern food. We have all sorts of cakes and pies (pecan being my favorite), good BBQ requires brown sugar, and let us not forget our beloved sweet tea.
I am sure one thing we can all agree on is that sugar and grits do not mix. In fact, I love to watch the reaction that folks from other parts of the country have when first introduced to grits. Many of them will mistake grits for Cream of Wheat or Malt-O-Meal and put sugar on it. Those of us in the know just add a little red-eye gravy or snuggle our ham next to the grits for some tasty goodness.
While I am harping on misappropriated sugar, I’ll stir the pot a little more by adding my short list of other foods that should not contain sugar: cole slaw, hush puppies, scrambled eggs, and biscuits. I understand how your opinions of proper Southern cooking may differ, but that is just how I was raised.
So, on New Year’s morning, while we all share in our breakfasts of golden brown biscuits, country ham, eggs and red-eye gravy, please pass me the grits and hold the sugar.