Black-eyed peas and collard greens

Every new year, our very Southern neighbors prepare me a dinner plate. They’ve been doing it for years — they’re great next-door neighbors — because, in the South, that’s what neighbors do. And they do it because they know that I love it. They come to their back gate, which opens up on our cul de sac, and lift over a huge plate that’s loaded enough for Luke to have a good helping, too. They’ll put in a little extra cornbread for Mary Jo.

Neil, who does most of the cooking, was born and raised in the Atlanta area but talks like he’s from deep south Georgia. He puts ulllllll in his VE-hick-ul when it needs it — cracks me up every time I hear it — and loves to cackle, break out a “Mercy!” and shake his head every time something tickles him. When I’m poking fun at him is not one of those times.

ME: “Say it again. Ullllllll?”

NEIL (with a disapproving stare): “Really, Donovan? You’re not right.”

I’ve lived in the South for more than 20 years now, brought up a kid here and feel qualified now in saying that, yes, this area of the country has its problems. The thing is, though, they’re probably not as bad as I thought they might be when we moved here from the Midwest, and they’re probably not much worse — if at all — than a lot of other places.

Rednecks? Yep, we have them. Racism? Absolutely. You can find the Stars and Bars flying not far outside the Atlanta city lines.

But I’ve seen rednecks in New York and Southern California, know that racism exists from Boston to Phoenix, realize that history, for better and worse, has a firm, sometimes unforgiving grasp everywhere. The South’s history is complicated, Atlanta’s especially. It was a Civil War stronghold. It remains the center of the Civil Rights movement. The City of Atlanta is a blue oasis, largely populated by black people, in the middle of a red state in the reddest area of the country. It’s complicated.

One part of living here that can bring us together, not unlike most other areas, is food. And so our southern neighbors — not rednecks, not racist, but definitely Southern — bring us a little taste of the South every year. It’s tradition.

On the right of the photo above (^) is the basis of every good Southern new year’s plate; a helping of black-eyed peas. (For you Yankees, it’s really a bean.) Traditionally, they’re eaten on the first day of the new year. Often served with collard greens (in the middle of the photo, they represent the color of money) and ham hock (or, as Neil prepares it, with a slice of ham from elsewheree), the meal is said to bring good luck and prosperity for the coming year.

There’s some rice at the top of that plate, too, not quite the Southern dish Hoppin’ John (but close), and a big chunk of pineapple casserole at the left. Not sure of their significance. But I do know that, if somebody gives you a plate wishing you the best for a new year, you take it with a good dose of gratitude.

It was, as it is every year, delicious. I am always, as we southerners might say, much obliged.

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