There’s no resting for David and Tonya Thomas following Christmas.
The food historians behind the catering company H3irloom Food Group start getting inundated with orders and inquiries for New Year’s Eve and Day “plates” in early December. By the 19th, they release their menu composed of fried Maryland blue catfish, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread, and start watching the orders roll in.
“We have a big response,” she said with a laugh. “Last year, we added delivery in real time. This year, we’re sticking to pre-orders only. The response was too great.”
Although the practice of eating these soulful dishes on the night of Dec. 31 and on Jan. 1 is deeply rooted in Black and Southern culture, the large numbers of people looking to reconnect with and honor those traditions mean that there is a market for selling these treasured cuisines.
For Black chefs, bakers and caterers in the Baltimore area, New Year’s Day has become a very busy and lucrative time, as customers seek traditional Black cuisine superstitiously associated with bringing fortune and good luck in the following months.
People on the New Year’s holidays eat dishes such as black-eyed peas, which represent good luck; collard greens, which represent money; and cornbread, which is another symbol of wealth. Combining fried fish or a fish entrée with greens means money and progress. Eating pork is also a source of good luck. And consuming the nutrient rich “potlikker”—the juice from cooked collard greens—is considered an elixir on New Year’s Day. Some Black families avoid eating all types of fowl over the two days because it is believed that these winged animals — even ones that can’t fly, such as chicken and turkey — are capable of flying away with good luck. Many of these foods and traditions are traced back to Black Americans’ African origins.
Brooklyn-based food historian Tonya Hopkins is not surprised to hear of the increased interest in New Year’s food traditions. But she is surprised that so many people are letting others cook these traditional meals, which has been considered bad luck in some circles.
“Growing up on New Year’s Eve, you needed to have those beans simmering and greens cleaned. They needed to be cooking on your stove,” she said. “This is a whole new version of the tradition. It’s the trend of people wanting good food. They can maintain traditions and not cook it themselves.”
The Thomases said they were fortunate enough to grow up in homes where such end-of-year traditions were commonplace, but they know there are many who were not exposed to the meals or simply cannot cook themselves.
“These are age-old traditions that have been around for hundreds of years. There is a generation [that] has stopped being in the kitchen. The tradition was built around the family and us being together. We want to bring that back,” he said.
Hopkins believes that the trend that the Baltimore culinary industry is experiencing is indicative of a greater cultural exchange occurring throughout the country.
Hopkins recalled being in a grocery store last year when a white customer tried to purchase the last bunch of collard greens right out of her hands.
“I thought, ‘What has the world come to when a younger white man tried to talk an older Black woman out of the greens so he could observe the tradition?’” she said with a laugh. “The tradition is so big, and beyond the Black world.”
Hopkins, who is known on social media as The Food Griot, thinks it’s a good thing for non-Black groups to adopt the tradition as part of their New Year’s Eve and Day traditions.
“Food is one way to exchange culture. That’s my favorite way. I have no problem with it,” she said. “I would be a hypocrite. I make tamales with my Mexican American friends during the holidays. I have to be open to folks of another culture being excited about the tradition and adopting it. I think it’s beautiful. That is assuming it’s about learning about people and their history and that they are doing it respectfully.”
The Thomases, who have sold out of the meals since first offering them in 2020, see them as a way of not only providing a service, but of preserving Black culture.
For example, the Thomases are quick to point out the significance of selling these platters or “plates” during this time of year as a nod to the Black church, where meals were sold after services as a way of raising funds. Fried fish was a logical option to sell due to its abundance — especially in communities with close proximity to waterways like Baltimore.
“We need it to be picked back up again,” she said. “If no one keeps these traditions, these will be lost.”
He added: “It’s up to us to put the city on our back and help to keep these traditions alive. It’s about our community. How do we continue to educate our people about who we are. And if we bring people together around this story, we would be better.”
Kora Polydore, owner of Kora Lee’s, a soul food bakery and café in Catonsville, has been selling up to 60 plates consisting of fried fish and sides of baked mac and cheese, black-eyed peas, yams, deviled eggs, or potato salad with a piece of cornbread since 2019.
“People have been really rallying around traditions this holiday season since gatherings have gotten larger,” she said. “People care again. Like, people are interested in carrying on legacy again.”
The business’ top seller? Black-eyed peas.
Polydore uses a traditional recipe for her black-eyed peas. That means fatback or pig’s feet. No smoked turkey for the superstitious staple.
“It doesn’t taste like my granny’s with that turkey,” she said.
For Cia Carter, the owner of Miss Carter’s Place downtown and Miss Carter’s Kitchen in Edmondson Village, her black-eyed peas are highly sought after the first day of the year and beyond.
“I am literally making and serving black-eyed peas four months after the new year,” she said.
Although the chef has been making her version of black-eyed peas for years with her grandmother, she started selling it beginning on New Year’s Day just a couple years ago, when customers started inquiring if she could make the smoky dish, which is seasoned with pork.
“My black-eyed peas are not to be played with. They’re better than your grandmother’s,” she said. “I use two different smoked meats and I add a little collard green to mine. I take it to New Orleans and use a little creole seasoning.”
She also sells a lot of collard greens, fried chicken, and any kind of fried fish, including catfish, whiting, lake trout and steak fish.
Carter said her clientele requesting the dishes has diversified over the years.
“I have made nonbelievers, believers,” the Sandtown native said. “When I first started, I was just serving the Black community. Now my customers are Black and white.”
Ultimately, Hopkins hopes that this cultural shift will benefit Black people in every aspect of the food industry.
“Is it a real shift in power and all of that? I don’t know. Is it a box checked or are we trying to make some real change happen?” asked Hopkins, the host of Food Network’s miniseries, The Kwanzaa Menu, which focuses on the foods associated with the annual holiday that celebrates African American culture from Dec. 26 to January 1.
“The problem is the commerce side of it. It is what happens in America. When the idea comes from us, the profit goes to corporate America,” she said. “I wish there were black grocers making money from the greens and peas. I want us to have a full circle moment where it is grown by a Black farmer, sold by a Black grocer, and cooked by everybody.”