Monday, December 20, 2004

The Story of Hoppin' John

This goes along with the season as well as the desire to live well while living frugally. It also meshes with Erudite Redneck's post about chow and how folk food around the world has a lot more in common than not.

Spicy Hoppin' John has been a tradition in my household every New Year's Day since probably 1977 when it was introduced to me by my then-boyfriend's mother. Before that, I had never in my life eaten a black-eyed pea.

And that's what Hoppin' John is -- a traditional southern dish made primarily of black-eyed peas, some form of pork (depending on the household tradition and what's available), rice and tomatoes. A pot will feed 20 people more or less (I tested the theory last year for a New Year's party and 12 of us ate well with plenty of leftovers). It will also sustain smaller parties for a month or so.

So, how did this dish get its name? One story attributes the name to the custom of inviting guests to eat with, "Hop in, John." Another suggestion is that it is derived from an old ritual on New Year's Day in which the children of the house hopped once around the table before eating the dish.

The reason this is considered a "southern" dish is because black-eyed peas are a legume common to North Africa. And of course it came to this country through the slave trade. Couple this with the rice economy of the Carolinas and you have a merging of folk cuisines, combining the black-eyed peas with rice. Such food mixing is a common occurrence in our culture's history -- look at Cajun combinations of French legacies with the swamp food available in Louisiana as another example.

In any event, eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day is supposed to bring good luck. Eating greens is supposed to ensure wealth in the new year. Sounds like a prescription for dinner to me! Add the cornbread too, just because it's mmm mm good. I particulary like Crescent Dragonwagon's Sizzlin' Skillet Cornbread for the occasion (I'll have to post it later, company is on the way right now.)

Anyway, Hoppin' John, being a folk dish, does not require a fancy recipe. Modern conveniences such as canned vegetables makes it very easy. I don't do the dried bean routine nearly as often any more since I can simply grab 3 cans for $1 and be that much farther ahead of the game. Fill a large pot with black-eyed peas and add pork. That can be leftover ham, a hambone, salt pork, jowls, whatever is cheap and handy. The cheaper the better. Cover with a good amount of water. Chop up an onion and throw it in. Cover and simmer for a long time. (Usually measured in football games. Don't let the pot go dry.) Before eating, throw in a couple of cans of tomatoes (I used juicy stewed ones) and another can of water with a can of rice. Let it simmer til the rice swells up and the tomatoes are hot. Have the cornbread and greens ready too. Then eat. And eat and eat.



Erudite Redneck said...

But, the reason blackeyed peas are lucky, the lore goes, is that when marauding Yankee soldiers -- forgive the redundancy -- came through parts of the South torching everything they saw during the War of Northern Aggression, they left peas growing in the fields thinking that, with the livestock scattered or slaughtered, the cow feed had no value. Suffering Southerners ate the peas to get by -- and felt lucky to have them.

Trixie said...

Ah yes, you are correct. Combine that with the wild berries left along fence lines and you have the beginnings of the foraging lifestyle that kept my ancestors alive as well. Poverty can be a great teacher.

TECH said...

Thanks for the recipe! I think I'm going to give this a try.