by Ray Linville
A community can come together on special occasions, such as New Year’s Day. When the “good luck” foods of the South are provided free by elected officials and political candidates, the crowd can swell and create a huge waiting line, just the perfect opportunity for politicians to meet and greet voters and constituents to chat with their representatives.
The time-honored tradition of mixing food and politics occurs each January 1 in Cumberland County when local residents enjoy a meal of Southern fixins compliments of their elected officials. The event is even more important in 2016 for some politicians because the primary elections, normally held in late spring, have been advanced to mid-March.
The event – known as the New Year’s Day Black-Eyed Pea Dinner — is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Crown Coliseum Expo Center in Fayetteville. The waiting line begins to form early, and soon the news media arrives to conduct interviews. People of all ages, faiths, races, and incomes mingle comfortably as they gather, and the clothing ranges from Sunday finest to very casual. By the time the doors open, hundreds are waiting. On their way to the serving area, up to 2,000 file by the receiving line of political leaders greeting the guests.
The dinner tradition, celebrating its 32nd year in 2016, began in the 1970s when the county sheriff and a local attorney began holding New Year’s Day luncheons at their homes. Because the public and local officials felt torn on which event to attend, the two hosts came together and jointly sponsored one community luncheon, which has evolved into the current format.
Many guests are regulars each year. Charlie Griffin, now retired from the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, and his wife Ezda have lived in Fayetteville since 1961. She says that they have attended every dinner since the tradition began. “The menu’s the same – collards, black-eyed peas, and yams, and it tastes about the same too,” she says with a smile.
The dinner has the atmosphere of a large family supper. Although greetings in the receiving line continue throughout the event, spontaneous hellos – sometimes noisy — occur throughout the huge room as friends, neighbors and coworkers recognize each other.
The annual dinner transforms Fayetteville, the sixth-largest municipality in the state, and its county (with more than 300,000 residents) into a place where almost “everyone knows your name … and they’re all glad that you came,” the closeness displayed at the Boston bar popularized on the TV show Cheers. Politicians and candidates (some wear nametags; others pass out business cards) are the greeters. The patrons are the guests who enter, eat, and mingle.
For 2016, the primary sponsors were families of district attorneys (Billy West and the late Ed Grannis) and the register of deeds (Lee Warren) of Cumberland County. When Grannis retired in 2010, West succeeded him. Although Grannis, the county’s district attorney for 35 years and long-time dinner organizer, died last October, his family continued its role as a sponsor.
Many others also contribute to make the dinner possible, including Congresswoman Renee Ellmers whose district encompasses the county. She was one of several candidates who attended the dinner a few weeks before the primary elections in March. Also present was former Congressman Bob Etheridge, whom Ellmers defeated in the 2010 general election.
In addition to politicians, veterans are prominent. Many wear military hats, shirts, or other insignia. Bobbie Duke, 84, who served in the Korean conflict in 1950-51, enjoys the annual event. Like Duke, the crowd is very senior; most are over 50, although several children accompany adults who may be their grandparents.
Many legends have been passed down by previous generations about the prosperity possible in the coming year if collard greens (symbolizing paper money) and black-eyed peas (representing coin money) are eaten on the first day of the New Year. Aren’t the prospects for prosperity even greater if the meal includes barbecue and yams as served in Fayetteville?
Eating collards and black-eyed peas on January 1 is a proven Southern tradition to start the New Year on the right path. It’s even a greater benefit for elected officials who want to earn the favor of voters. Nothing brings out a crowd like traditional home-cooked food enjoyed among friends – particularly when it’s free.
Here are some links to collard green and black-eyed peas recipes from Southern Living: