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Lucky Black-Eyed Peas

Definitely try the gumbo, the cracklins and the sweet potato pie.
Troy Fields

The cabbage on the steam table at Family Discount Food was tender, but not squishy. It was flavored with enough bacon to coat my lips pleasantly with pig fat. I found a curled-up piece of bacon meat among the leaves in the Styrofoam box that served as my plate. The black-eyed peas were made from dried beans, and they were cooked perfectly, so that the beans were soft, but whole. The broth around the peas had an earthy flavor, with a just-peppery-enough seasoning.

The cornbread muffin that came with the meal was moist and sweet. The stewed oxtails were only average, but the rice and gravy was homey and warming. The real reason I was eating at the grocery store was to check out the cabbage and black-eyed peas one more time before I made my decision. It's not often that I am so interested in the vegetables. Yes, the women behind the steam table assured me, the soul food buffet would be open New Year's Day.

Family Discount Food is an Asian-owned salvage grocery store in the Trinity Gardens neighborhood of the Fifth Ward. Along with the out-of-date canned goods, there's also a soul food buffet. The store is open every day of the year except Christmas Eve and Christmas, and so is the buffet.

So I've already solved the first problem of the New Year — where to get the black-eyed peas and cabbage we eat every year in hopes of good luck and prosperity. If you didn't get rich last year and it didn't seem like a particularly lucky 12 months, you may be asking yourself if the black-eyed peas and cabbage you ate last New Year's Day did you any good. To which the truly superstitious would reply, "Imagine how much worse it might have been if you didn't eat any."

White Southerners trace the custom of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day to the Civil War, when the residents of Confederate Vicksburg were sustained during a blockade by the food they previously considered cow fodder. But black-eyed peas came to the New World from Africa, where their spiritual significance goes back much further.

Black-eyed peas are a favored food of the river goddess Oshun, the mistress of abundance and passion in the African ­Yoruba and New World Santeria religions. We summon the goddess and her blessings when we serve her favorite food.

Cabbage has a more ecumenical symbolism — the green leaves represent money. The more you eat, the more you get, or so goes the superstition.

I wonder if black-eyed peas and cabbage will be served in the White House this holiday season. If so, I hope they invite Bernanke over to eat some cabbage for the Fed.
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Michael Riles was working at the Emile Street Community Garden in the Fifth Ward last weekend when I checked in. You get paid for your volunteer raking and watering efforts with first-rate organic vegetables. And there's some nice stuff growing over there that you can't find in many grocery stores, like sorrel and purple kohlrabi. It's a good place to learn about gardening, too.

Riles lives in the Fifth Ward, and it was his opinion that the cafeteria in the back of Family Discount Food serves the best soul food in the city. There wasn't any sorrel or kohlrabi on the steam table the first time I checked the place out. So I settled for falling-apart smothered pork chops in lots of gravy over rice, with sweet potatoes cooked with pumpkin pie spice and hearty black-eyed peas. The meal came in a Styrofoam to-go box with a cornbread muffin.

My lunch companion got the meatloaf, which was dark brown and very bland. But the creamy butter beans he got on the side were outrageously good, and the cabbage was tasty.

We sat down at a table beside a grocery shelf stocked with out-of-date canned goods, but we were the only ones eating there. I ate a lot of food, but I barely made a dent. The box lunch could feed a whole family. I took the rest home along with a cup of outstanding homemade banana pudding and a carton of the best cracklins I've had in the city.

On my second visit to Family Discount, I tried the breakfast special. It was cheap, but not very special. The buttery grits and the biscuits were promising, and the crispy bacon was average. I wasn't impressed with the pan sausage. I was hoping for some spicy stuff like they sell at Burt's Meat Market on Lyons. The eggs were awful — precooked and stiff. The best thing on the breakfast buffet was the pork chop. It was coated with spicy batter and tasted like it had been chicken-fried.

Standing there in line admiring my pork chop, biscuit and grits, I asked the lady behind the counter if she had any gravy. "No," was all she said.

I say, too bad.

On my third visit, while I was sampling the cabbage, black-eyed peas and disappointing oxtails, I also ordered some food to take home. A whole roasted Cornish game hen was dry and overdone, but it came with a down-home spicy cornbread stuffing that I wish Santa would bring me for my Christmas turkey. Too bad there was no gravy again.

The best entrée I got at Family Discount was a Styrofoam container of gumbo. It was that Creole-style of "kitchen sink" gumbo that has whole chicken legs and wings, crab bodies, unpeeled shrimp and spicy sausage in it. It's the sort of gumbo that forces you to reach into the bowl and grab things to suck on. While you may prefer the nicety of a gumbo you can just eat with a spoon, there is an endearing audience participation factor about a gumbo with crab shells and chicken bones in it. It was delightfully peppery, too.

I also bought a slab of sweet potato pie that I savored a little at a time for several days. When I first bit into the orange-colored filling, I expected the usual rush of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice flavors, but instead of being a pumpkin pie imitation, this sweet potato pie had a bright, lemony flavor. Between the coarsely mashed sweet potato and the tartness of the custard, it was the best Southern pie I've tasted in a long time.

The sides and homemade desserts at Family Discount's soul food buffet are fabulous. The main courses require some careful navigation. Choose something that profits by long cooking and comes with gravy, like smothered pork chops or beef tips. Skip the meatloaf, oxtails and Cornish hens.

I'm not turning into a vegetarian or anything, but the best idea here might be to get the three-vegetable plate. Of course, if you are going to Discount Food for your black-eyed peas and cabbage on New Year's Day, you may want to complete the soul food triumvirate with the customary New Year's Day chitterlings. According to superstition, they bestow good health.

If you aren't partial to "chitlins," here's another idea: Stop by the Bar-B-Que Done Right trailer a block or so west of the grocery store on Laura Koppe Road. (Look for the smoke.) Gregory Carter's tender pork ribs will go great with your New Year's veggies. He told me he'll have his trailer out there on New Year's Day from eleven in the morning until he sells out of barbecue.

While you're at Discount Food, be sure to load up on gumbo, cracklins, sweet potato pie and banana pudding to round out your college bowl-watching feast. These foods may not fall under any particular superstitions, but you'll feel lucky any day you eat some.

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Family Discount Food

8805 Homestead
Houston, TX 77016

713-631-7000


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