(Photo by Tim Jaynes, Staff)
SIKESTON - Since he was a child, Johnny Kestner has had the same meal every New Years day: hog jowl, black-eye peas, cabbage, corn bread and fried potatoes.
"I've eaten it for as long as I can remember and I'm 60 years old," Kestner said.
Variations of this meal are a tradition for many in southeast Missouri, and has German roots. Some who eat it believe it guarantee it brings luck and ensures a happy and healthy year.
According to tradition, turnip greens can be substituted for the cabbage.
Cabbage or turnip greens, along with the black-eye peas, symbolize money, while the pork jowl is believed to bring good luck and represent prosperity.
"It's just the meaning that you'll have money for the next new year," said Terry McKinnie, owner of McKinnie's Bestway in Sikeston. "Some people will even put a penny in the cabbage while it's cooking."
Although McKinnie doesn't put coins in his cabbage, he has observed the meal tradition since he was a child and remembers his parents and grandparents cooking hog jowl, black-eye peas and cabbage.
And he, too, cooks fried potatoes with the three traditional foods. "If you've got black-eye peas and you don't have potatoes you might as well forget it," McKinnie said.
Several customers observe that tradition, too. On Monday, one customer bought four packages of jowl and two one-pound bags of black-eye peas, McKinnie said.
"People around here just go crazy for it on New Years Eve," said Jerry Ditto, manager of the meat department at Food Giant. He said the store has approximately 500 pounds of hog jowl.
Typically, McKinnie's Bestway sells over 200 pounds of jowl, close to 100 one-pound bags of dry black-eye peas and a couple cases of green cabbage.
Canned and frozen black-eye peas are also high demand items, McKinnie said.
Although hog jowl is the traditional meat for New Years in southeast Missouri, some who live more north prefer corn beef over hog jowl, McKinnie said. "And we sell that, too," he said.
And Ditto, who previously lived in northern Illinois, said the demand for hog jowl is much higher in southeast Missouri than where he came from, where people prefer prime rib for New Years.
But for some, it isn't the meaning behind the meal that matters most to some - it's just the custom. "It's a traditional thing that we'll always do," Kestner said. "As far as I know, the whole country does it."
Kestner isn't a die-hard believer of the tale, either. His son and grandson don't like cabbage. "Neither will eat it," he said. And that's OK with Kestner - he doesn't force either to eat the cabbage.
These days, Kestner, who is the chairman of the board of trustees at the Sikeston Eagles Club, enjoys the traditional meal with other Eagles members and community members at the Eagles' annual dinner on New Years Day.
The meal includes hog jowl, black-eyed peas, cabbage, corn bread and fried potatoes, and will be served from 12 to 2 p.m. at the Eagles building, 219 W. Trotter. Cost is $3 per person, Kestner said.
People can also buy a meal from the Food Giant Deli, including hog jowl, black-eye peas, cornbread and cabbage to sit in or take home, said Linda James, assistant deli manager.
But those who buy the meat to take home and cook should shop early. "I will run out of it," Ditto assured. "I've only got so much help and so much time."