New York Times on Southern New Year’s Traditions

30 Dec

Nice piece — Happy New Year, y’all …

Black-eyed peas and ham hocks please Northerners, too.

It’s a lesson I learned earlier this month, when James Graham handed me a couple of pieces of seasoning meat from his truck, parked on a stretch of asphalt in Brooklyn.

Seasoning meat is really just the thick trimmings band-sawed from the top or bottom of a country ham. Some people call it sweet meat, others just call it smoked ham.

But in the backs of a handful of trucks that park in East New York, Canarsie and Bedford-Stuyvesant, it’s called seasoning meat and it will set you back about $4 a pound. You don’t need very much to make a batch of Hoppin’ John or some greens. Maybe a quarter-pound, especially if the meat is sharing the job with a ham hock or two.

“Put some of this in your pot and the neighbors will come fast, I promise you that,” said Mr. Graham, who works out of a truck parked near the intersection of Flatlands and Pennsylvania Avenues in Brooklyn.

Seasoning meat is just one item he sells. He also has compact ham hocks, giant smoked turkey wings and a kind of white cornmeal that’s hard to find at the local Key Food. He has collard greens and okra, too. And bags of peanuts and pecans still in the shell.

Most of it had been driven north from Georgia and the Carolinas, following a trail that began generations earlier with the great migration of black Southerners to industrial cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York during the Jim Crow era.

Once people arrived, the tastes of home made the transition easier, said Marci Cohen Ferris, an associate professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specializes in the meaning of food in American culture.

“The Southern ham hocks and field peas you see in Brooklyn today are rooted in that history, especially at holiday time, when the Southern diaspora of New York really longs for home,” she said.

As far as the sellers and their customers can recall, the trucks appeared on the scene more than 40 years ago. That’s when people like George Huston and George Lee figured there was a market for country food in Brooklyn’s growing African-American community.

It’s likely, though, that similar enterprises in both Brooklyn and Harlem go back much further. Ms. Ferris points out that in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” the main character buys and eats a baked South Carolina yam on a Harlem street in the 1930s and is “overcome by an intense feeling of freedom.”

The trucks were once plentiful on Brooklyn streets. Mr. Huston owned 15 tractor trailers that he and his extended family would use to haul produce and smoked meat from the South.

The import business was so good for Mr. Lee that he opened the North Carolina Country Store on Atlantic Avenue in 1973. His daughter, Patricia, ran it until a year ago, when she sold it.

The store is one of the few places to get seasoning meat in Brooklyn.

“Everybody comes here if they can’t go to the trucks,” said Gloria Miles, a truant officer and a member of the Greater Bright Light Missionary Baptist Church. On a recent December afternoon, she was shopping at the store instead of at her favorite truck for two reasons. One, it was freezing outside, and two, she prefers pig tails to seasoning meat for her greens, and the trucks don’t usually have it.

Across the street, Jule Huston, 70, waited for customers. He’s in the moving business, but about 15 years ago he followed in his Uncle George’s footsteps and started selling smoked meats, pungent sage sausages and Southern pantry staples along the roadside.

He has watermelon and other produce for a short time during the summer, but relies on the last three months of the year to make serious money. That’s when people seek hams, the last of the fresh black-eyed peas and jars of chow-chow and honey to offer as Christmas gifts.

And of course, everyone needs supplies for Hoppin’ John and greens, two simple dishes that are required eating each New Year’s Day for Southerners (or anyone else, one imagines) who want to bring luck and prosperity.

Jessica Harris, an African-food scholar who divides her time between New Orleans and Brooklyn, was once a regular customer of the trucks.

“When I first moved to Brooklyn, there was a guy selling yams in winter, grapes in fall and watermelon out of the back of his car in the summer,” she said. But that was 20 years ago.

“They’re all disappearing,” she said.

Mr. Huston can count just two other truck vendors — his relatives who work the one in Canarsie and another man with a small operation who sometimes parks near him on Atlantic Avenue.

As recently as November, Michelle V. Agins, a New York Times photographer, bought fresh black-eyed peas and ham hocks from a man she knows as W. C. Ms. Agins, who has been buying from him since 1989, said he usually parks near the corner of Lafayette and Classon Avenues on the border between Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant. But he hasn’t been around much for Christmas or New Year’s shoppers.

Mr. Huston wonders how long any of them will keep going. Business at his truck is just that bad.

“Used to be I’d have a line out the door all day long,” he said.

Some of the Southern ingredients once found only on the trucks can now be bought at places like Costco or Pathmark. Many of his older customers, Mr. Huston said, have moved back to the South. The younger people are too far removed from their Southern roots. Most of them, he said, don’t cook that much anyway.

“They’re going to McDonald’s and Burger King,” he said.

There is hope. He still has a few loyal customers. And business at the North Carolina Country Store across the street is nice and steady.

Because to some cooks, buying ham hocks from a supermarket or a warehouse store isn’t the same. At the trucks, somebody will ask you where your people are from. They will tell you how long to soak the black-eyed peas and when to start simmering the seasoning meat.

“You don’t have those conversations when you go and buy your pecans at Costco,” Ms. Ferris said.

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