Black-eyed peas, Windham style

Published 1:06 pm Saturday, January 2, 2010

SELMA — In the kitchen with her two cooking cohorts, Kathryn Tucker Windham — author, storyteller, photographer and journalist —baked cornbread and stirred black-eyed peas all day on Friday as people flowed in and out of her home at 2004 Royal St. Donning.

Dressed in an Auburn sweatshirt with smudges of cornbread ingredients and bright orange tennis shoes, Mrs. Windham greeted her more than 100 guests with kindness and warmth. If they chose to pop into the kitchen, she urged them to sign the guestbook and have a helping of black-eyed peas.

Eating black-eyed peas and cornbread on New Year’s Day is thought to bring a person good luck for the next 12 months.

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“It just gets bigger and bigger every year,” said Liz Taylor. “People hear about it and they keep coming.”

Ms. Taylor has assisted Mrs. Windham with this event since it began more than 35 years ago. Her job on Friday was to wash the dishes, answer the telephone and help with cooking when necessary.

Mrs. Windham insists on using actual plates and silverware over plastic items, so Ms. Taylor was busy cleaning all these items throughout the day. Also, people called all day to wish Mrs. Windham a Happy New Year if they could not attend, or check that the party was still occurring if they were in town.

For many years, Sue Thompson thought the New Year’s gathering was invitation-only. Then, 10 years ago, while working with an art gallery, Ms. Thompson got to know Mrs. Windham and found out the event was open to everyone.

“Once I knew you could come, I’ve been showing up,” Ms. Thompson said.

Guests raved that Mrs. Windham’s peas were the best they had ever tasted.

“Every year I ask her to tell me the recipe, and I make it and it doesn’t taste like hers,” Ms. Thompson said.

Although Mrs. Windham does not use an exact recipe for her menu, one of the additions to her black eyed peas is to add ham hock to the peas while they cook.

Ms. Thompson’s favorite part about attending this event each year is meeting new people.

“You meet people that you wouldn’t know otherwise,” she said. Guests come from all around Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.

“I have a good time,” Mrs. Windham said. “I hope everybody has a good time.”

The tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day started during the Civil War, according to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Union soldiers swept though the countryside, burning almost everything in their paths. Black-eyed peas were overlooked because they were a staple of a slave diet. Southern slave-owners and slaves turned to the peas for sustenance. The legend of luck from these foods spread from this time in history.