Photo by Jessica CalkinsTrue story. New Year's Eve. Aisle 12 at the supermarket. Me, scanning the canned and bagged legumes, searching like Hans Blix in Baghdad. I was trying to peep some black-eyed peas, that humble triptych of monosyllabic words that most nights just means a fine side dish, but which on the debut day of each Ao Nuevo is the traditional must-have food to ring in a happy, healthy and wealthy fresh spin around the sun.
Anyway, it wasn't happening. No black-eyed peas in the supermarket. And there were others seeking. A woman pushing a cart and trailing a child called out to a store clerk. "'Scuse me," the woman said. "Don't you have any black-eyed peas?"
I told the woman, hey, that's what I'm looking for, too. Told her my girlfriend sent me out to purchase the lucky legumes.
"Is your girlfriend black?" the woman asked, totally out of left field.
"Um, she's southern," I said.
"A lot of black people come from the South," she said.
The common black-eyed peace, scientific name Vigna Unguiculata, is a protein-rich, vine-born foodstuff of central African origin. The tasties are also known as "cowpeas" because of their historic prevalence as cattle chow. A lesser-known name is "catjang," which sounds like something from a litter box I'd rather not think about.
Either way, I went home empty-handed on Dick Clark's Ball night. The next morning, my girlfriend went to a different supermarket and bought a supply of cans bearing the name and legend of the famous Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem.
Too soon, Sylvia's catjang was a mere memory. Out of canned product and craving the fresh-cooked stuff, it was time for a restaurant jaunt.
I hopped into the two-door and eased the ride over to the tiny, beloved Ruth's Place in Santa Ana. The eatery, open here for 11 years, carries a tough-to-read sign out front advertising Southern-style soul food. The joint stands between vinyl haven Ghetto Records and the Casa de Antonio Barber Shop—complete with old-fashioned swirling pole.
Inside, as ever, Ruth herself was cooking, taking orders, and holding court behind the long black-and-white, diamond-shaped tile counter cluttered with everything from a half-dozen plants to copies of the Tri-County Bulletin.
Ruth is diminutive and distinctly redheaded. Everybody seems to call her Mom, and though she's not one to complain, she did thank me for walking up to the counter to pick up my pink lemonade refill. Seems Ruth's feet were a bit tired, owing to how she'd been up since real early, cooking for her booth at a cultural event.
While I was waiting in line to order my black-eyed peas—along with a side of yams and cornbread, plus a catfish entre—one of the five fellas crammed into the larger of Ruth's Place's two tables got up to pay and turned to ask a playful question.
"What you gonna have today," he said, grinning. "Oxtail?"
"Do I look like I'm gonna have oxtail?" I answered, cheshiring back.
"Hey, you wouldn't believe it," he said. "But some white folk—no offense—come in and are real adventurous."
Me, I'd just come to dine. And eatin' at Ruth's Place is like dinin' and goin' to heaven. The catfish were steaming and piled fist-high. The yams were as sweet as Sade's taboo. The cornbread was as greasy as Dave Garofalo's palms. And the black-eyed peas were soft and plump and just the proper earthen hue. Their "eyes" resembled a solar eclipse's umbra—and I didn't need to build one of those pinhole contraptions in order to enjoy 'em. A sufficient quantity of Ruth's Place's peas had been squished during preparations to leave a grand, clabbered paste for the survivors to luxuriate in.
Sated, I finished my feast, paid and exited. I returned home in a fine mood that soon got finer. When I arrived, my legume-loving girlfriend greeted me particularly affectionately. Seems noshing black-eyed peas can bring good luck on more than just the first day of the year.
Ruth's Place, 1236 Civic Center Dr. W., Santa Ana, (714) 953-9454. Open Wed., 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat., noon-8 p.m.; Sun., 1-6 p.m. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $15, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
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