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A New Year’s Day Tradition & The Middlesex County Tomato Canning Industry

January 1, 2021

Canning Factories in Middlesex County, Virginia

If you grew up in the southeast region of the United States, you may be familiar with a New Year’s Day tradition of Black-Eyed Peas & Stewed Tomatoes, but do you know where the idea originated that these foods brought prosperity for the New Year?

And did you know that Urbanna, Virginia used to be home to a tomato canning facility in the 1930s?

THE ORIGIN OF THE TRADTION

First, it’s important to know that black-eyed peas were not an indigenous food source to the United States. This variety of beans actually came from West Africa. These beans were consumed on special occasions such as the birth of a child or a homecoming. The West Africans believed the black-eyed pea to be a sort of good luck charm, and a dish that could ward off the Evil Eye.

West Africans brought this crop & their food traditions to the United States, and the south in particular by way of slave ships. These slave ships were provisioned with black-eyed peas in order to sustain the passenger during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic.

The popularity and consumption of the “lucky” bean eventually spread from the enslaved to the slaveholders, and the crop began popping up on plantations and in gardens halfway through the 1700s.

Over time, southern culture began to shape the tradition of consuming black-eyed peas on New Year’s day, by adding stewed tomatoes and greens as an additional wish of health and wealth throughout the New Year.

TOMATO CANNING FACTORIES IN MIDDLESEX COUNTY, VIRGINIA

A photo featured in “Pick, peel, can
and cook ’em: The days of community tomato factories” by Larry S. Chowning (Courtesy of Anne Wheeley)

A main ingredient for this New Year’s tradition wasn’t hard to come by in Middlesex, Virginia in the 1930s.

Lord Mott Canning Factory of Baltimore built a canning factory just outside of Urbanna, Virginia. Tomatoes were grown in tomato fields and open lots within the corporate limits of the Town of Urbanna. Workers, brought in from surrounding counties on trucks, would pick the tomatoes and then the tomatoes were taken to the factory to be peeled, canned, and steamed.

Other tomato canning facilities could also be found throughout the county including the E.B. Wood & Brothers Tomato Packing house in Hartfield (formerly known as Lot). Tomato factories could be found in Wake and Deltaville, as well.

To learn more about the history and commercial industries that have come and gone throughout Middlesex County, we invite you to visit our Museums of Middlesex, where you can experience 350 years of history in just one day!

We also invite you to check out an entire article on the Tomato Canning Industry throughout the Northern Neck & Middle Peninsula written by Larry S. Chowning and published in a 2008 Rappahannock Record issue, here.