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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

THE GREAT BLACKEYED PEA HOAX

by C. F. Eckhardt
Did you eat blackeyed peas for good luck on New Year's Day? Did you do so because it's a 'great ante-bellum Southern tradition?' If so, congratulations. You have been scammed by one of the most likeable con-artists in Texas history.

Blackeyed peas have been a Southern staple for centuries, it's true-but they were a staple food for 'po' folks' and animals. Traveler might have eaten blackeyed peas in his stall on New Year's Day, but you can bet they didn't grace the table of Marse Bob and family on that date. It was not, in fact, until World War I that blackeyed peas moved out of the sharecropper's shanty and into the landowner's house. They're a good source of protein, and what with things like 'Meatless Tuesdays' during the First World War, they were used primarily as a meat substitute.

In 1947 a feller named Elmore Torn, Sr. was hired as the flack for the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce. You probably won't remember Elmore Sr., but you might have heard of his son, Elmore Jr. He's an actor better known as 'Rip' Torn.

At the time Elmore Sr. was hired on, there wasn't much to promote in Henderson County. There was farming-and oil-and farming-and oil-and that was pretty close to it. There was a pottery manufacturing business, and there was a cannery. The cannery canned, among other things, blackeyed peas.

If you open a can of blackeyed peas these days, you've got a reasonably good product. It's not as good as shelling the peas themselves and cooking them up with hamhocks and spices in your own kitchen, but it ain't bad. The same could not be said for canned blackeyed peas in 1947. When you opened a can what you saw was something that looked like lumpy, grayish-brown library paste with dark brown spots scattered in it. What you tasted was, in essence, salty tin. The canning process picked up the taste of the metal the cans were lined with. In other words, that stuff was downright awful and it's a miracle anyone ate it at all.

Elmore Torn, Sr. was tasked with the job of creating a market for this all-but-inedible mess. He came up with an idea that caught on so thoroughly people now believe eating blackeyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck is a long-standing tradition dating to the ante-bellum South.

Blackeyed peas, Elmore wrote in a tract he had the Chamber publish, were a long-standing Southern culinary delight that graced the tables of high and low society all across the ante-bellum South, particularly on New Year's Day, when no proper Southern table would be without them. Eating blackeyed peas on New Year's Day brought good luck. Yankees, in the hated Reconstruction period, suppressed this fine old Southern tradition, and it was in danger of being lost. Even General Lee and President Davis ate blackeyed peas on New Year's for good luck, and because of that the Yankees tried to stamp out all memory of this time-honored Southern tradition. It was time this tradition was revived all across the South. And, of course, how better to revive it than to serve conveniently-packaged canned blackeyed peas from Henderson County, Texas?

Elmore had the Chamber print up several hundred of these fliers. Then he went to the cannery and had an equal number of 2-ounce cans of blackeyed peas made up. He sent the scam-and a 2-ounce can of blackeyed peas from Henderson County, Texas-to the food editors of every major daily newspaper in the South. The peas-and the story-hit the food editors' desks right after Thanksgiving.

At the time, there really wasn't a 'traditional' meal for New Year's. Thanksgiving-and sometimes Christmas-was turkey, and of course Easter was ham, the 4th of July and Labor Day were either hot dogs or burgers cooked outside, but beyond that there weren't any really 'traditional' holiday foods in the South. Exactly how many food editors bit Elmore's hook we don't know, but he continued mailing copies of his scam and the 2-ounce cans of blackeyed peas to food editors across the south for several more years. Each year more and more food editors got on the bandwagon. Elmore started the 'tradition,' not of eating blackeyed peas per se, but the specific 'tradition' of eating blackeyed peas for good luck on New Year's Day-a 'tradition' which had never existed before 1947.

He eventually retired and moved to Williamson County, where he became known as 'The Sage of Circleville.' Circleville, incidentally, is-or was, when I was a youngster chasing cattle on a little place about 30 miles west of it--a mostly-ghost town at the intersection of Texas 29 and Texas 95, between Taylor and Granger. At the time it had a dancehall frequented by girls from Taylor-not those girls, the other ones-and Granger, and an abandoned cotton gin, and that was about all there was to Circleville. Elmore was known for insisting that Circleville was a far more cosmopolitan place than New York City. After all, almost no one in New York had ever heard of Circleville, Texas-but might near everyone in Circleville had heard of New York City at least once.

Elmore's been gone a good many years now, but his 'tradition' continues. He's where all the good flacks end up, and no doubt he's having a good laugh over all the 'sophisticated' big-city-newspaper food editors he conned with that yarn and those 2-ounce cans of blackeyed peas. And, yep-I'll have blackeyed peas on my table come New Year's Day. Not because I think they'll bring good luck in the New Year, but to honor Elmore Torn, Sr.-the guy who parlayed 2-ounce cans of blackeyed peas and a tale cut from whole cloth into a 'time-honored Southern tradition.' Besides, I like 'em.
C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" >

January 1, 2007 column

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