Year Of The Bacon
If there's one thing the Chinese and people from the Southern United States have in common, it is their love of all things pork.
Even though we can't seem to agree on what day the New Year falls on, we can all agree that everything tastes better with bacon, or ham hocks, or fatback.
The personification of this love affair between the two cultures probably would be my two cousins, Heather and Jimmy, whose mother is of Scots-Irish descent and whose father is of Cantonese descent. Both Heather and Jimmy look 98 percent Asian, but as soon as they open their mouths to speak, out comes the thickest Southern drawl you'll ever hear anyone speak.
I'm sure they didn't have it easy growing up. For one thing Pop, our grandfather, and Uncle John, their dad, didn't get along, for reasons why I'll never know. Maybe it was because Uncle John was Chinese and could barely speak English, or maybe it was because he never seemed to be at home. I remember one incident that is legend in family history about "the Uncle John and Pop Showdown" which, from what I heard, ended up with Pop chasing John around the yard with a hammer and Uncle John (to the delight of me and my Bruce Lee-infatuated cousins) putting a few Kung Fu moves on the old man.
When Uncle John wasn't going all White Crane on Pop, he worked as a cook in Chinese restaurants all up and down the East Coast. I remember sleeping over at their house and Uncle John coming in late at night smelling of grease and Sweet and Sour sauce, wanting to kick back and watch Johnny Carson. Eventually, I think him and my aunt seperated or divorced because I seem to remember him being out of the picture for a long time. Because I haven't stayed in contact with my mother's side of the family, I'm not privvy to the daily details of their lives. But a little over 6 years ago, my Mom told me via telephone that Uncle John was found murdered in New York City, and that's the last her or I ever heard about it.
Why I bring all of this up is, of course, the New Year. And while I don't remember this tradition that much growing up, it is a Southern tradition to eat black-eye peas and collard greens on New Year's day.
When I think about the South, I think about my family, most of whom still live there. Most of whom, like Heather and Jimmy, will always live there, most likely within 30 minutes of where they were born, until the day they die.
I got out of the South as soon as I could because, frankly, it looks a lot better from where I'm sitting now than it did when I lived there. It's not absence, but distance, that makes my heart grow fond of all things Southern. In fact, you could say my view of the South now is revisionist; a kitchy, non-threatening idealization of experiences and foods I had, and many others I never had, or wish I had more of. Eventually, there's nothing bad or good about North Carolina that can't also be said of California, to the dismay of many who believe we are somehow unique. Yet what makes it all different for me is personal; the feeling of freeing myself from a shell I felt confined to, for many of my own personal reasons, yes, but also environmentally. If I felt this way, Lord knows how Jimmy and Heather must have felt or feel. Maybe they have some way of dealing that I just couldn't connect to.
Nevertheless, if I had grown up in Ceres or Ripon or Salida or any of the many California Central Valley towns, I'm sure I'd be waxing nostalgic about Tri-tip, almond orchards, and water skiing in the irrigation canals.
As it is, I must bore you with black-eyed peas and greens.
Still, it is funny about Southern people and pork. Once, I told my mom that I was trying to eat healthier by eating more vegetables, to which she responded by saying (I don't remember her exact words but) that in addition to vegetables I should also eat other healthy things, "like pork chops".
Oh, and my grandma never cooked with anything but bacon grease. There it was, on top of her stove, resting in a coffee cup, at arms reach, the bacon grease, which she would use to fry pancakes, yellow squash, potatoes, you name it.
Where I'm from you could be an atheist, so long as you believed in Jesus. And you could be a vegetarian, so long as you ate pork.
This Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and collard greens cooked with ham hocks is suppose to bring you wealth and good luck in the year to come. Seeing as though I'm already breaking my rule of having no superstitions by dodging pennies on the ground that aren't facing heads up, I figure on this day, what the hell. In fact, this year I kicked it up a notch by indulging in 2 more additional superstitions.
The first one was the First Footer superstition, whereas the first person to set foot in your house after the New Year must be a dark haired male (Bruce) bearing a gift (a box of salt), who must be let in through the front door, hand over the gift, and leave through the backdoor. What luck this brings, I don't know, but if I'm going to win the lottery this year I'll need all the help I can get.
Ditto with this other one (much less work), which simply requires opening the windows and doors in your house/apartment at the beginning of the New Year to "let out the Old Year", which in our case may not only be for luck, but also to clear out all of the smoke from the stir-fry I made earlier.
But enough yakking. Let's get this New Year started.
For black-eyed peas:
Soak a pound of dried peas in plenty of water overnight. Mine soaked overnight, and then some.
Excluding the ham hocks, I fried some bacon on medium heat, but not to the crispy point. I then removed it from the pot, chopped it up, and left the bacon grease in the pot. My bacon wasn't that fatty, so if you get a ton of grease, I suggest you pour some of it out (or leave it in, it's your arteries).
Added to the pot was 1 whole chopped yellow onion, which I let fry until very soft. Added, as I chopped each ingredient, was 1 hot pepper (with seeds and ribs removed) and about 4 medium cloves of garlic. Add the chopped bacon.
Now, add about 1 tablespoon of black pepper plus about 3 tablespoons of chopped fresh thyme. Why thyme? "Father Time" = Thyme? No, actually because I have some growing in a pot outside.
You'll also need an additional tablespoon of thyme to add in near the completion of the peas.
After these things have sauteed a bit, add the peas to the pot and stir. Now crank the heat on high, making sure to stir occasionally. After this has started to sound lively, add chicken broth or stock and fill just until the stock covers the beans. Normally I use homemade broth, but in this case I used the canned stuff. It's all good. You won't need to use salt if your broth has salt in it.
Bring to a boil and continue to boil for 30 – 45 minutes uncovered or until the liquid has reduced significantly.
I don't like black-eyed pea soup/stew, nor do I like it mushy. This cooking method produces a somewhat dry stew with the peas soft, but firm with a crisp bite.
When finished, remove from the heat, add in the last of the chopped thyme and serve immediately or cover.
Next, let's move on to the greens.
One year I cooked collard greens, despite Bruce repeatedly telling me he doesn't like cooked greens. I thought I could change his mind. After hours of cleaning, stemming, chopping, and cooking the greens, with the ham hocks and all, he still didn't like the greens.
To tell you the truth, I'm not that big a fan either. So instead of collard greens, I sauteed some chard. Of course, it's not the same as collard greens, but show me where it says it has to be. As far as I remember, it's just "greens", period.
After washing, drying, and removing the stems from the leaves of one bunch of chard, I cut the bunch into 2-inch pieces.
Again, on medium in a large skillet, I fry me up some bacon, this time until it's crispy. Later, I'll chop the crispy bacon into bits.
Using the bacon grease as my lubrication (ok, bad choice of words), I raise the temperature to medium high and sautee some garlic. The more garlic, the better.
Next I throw in the chard, let it fry for a minute, and then give it a good stir. Wow! Does it shrink down or what!
Now I throw in some pepper, a little salt, a squeeze of lime juice, and the chopped bacon. Give it another good stir and it's done. Remove from heat and serve.
Once cooking, this only took a few minutes, so you'll want to do this dish last.
Now we are ready to eat. Besides the black-eye peas and greens, I'm serving some slices of roast beef that I had dry-rubbed the night before (paprika, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder; the usual) and cooked in the oven at 250F for 3 hours (in hindsight, I should've cut down the cooking time to 2 or 2 and a half hours).
And of course what goes better with roast beef than Beaver brand creamy horseradish sauce? OK, I swear that wasn't a commercial. Really.
Here's wishing you a lucky and Happy New Year!