Hopping John is frequently eaten on New Year’s Day because black-eyed peas are thought to bring good luck to the new year. The explanations for why this particular pea harbors good luck are as open and as varied as the imagination. Some will tell that when General William T. Sherman’s troops made their march of ravage through the South during the Civil War, they did not destroy fields of cowpeas, another name for black-eyed peas, as they believed cowpeas were only food for livestock. Thus, black-eyed peas saved many Southerners from starvation, and became a symbol of good luck. For others, black-eyed peas represent the wealth of coins. They are also seen as a symbol of growing prosperity since they plump up and increase in volume as they cook.
The tales behind how Hopping John was named are as numerous as the tales of good luck. Many folklorists and historians will candidly admit they do not know the true origin of the term. Those who do have a theory cannot agree with one another. However, Charleston lore explains that the dish was sold on the streets there in the 1840’s by a crippled man known as Hopping John. Another explanation suggests a New Year’s ritual where children hopped around the dinner table before they were allowed to eat black-eyed peas and rice.
An alternative idea for the name Hopping John comes in several versions involving a traveler named John. One of these features John heading out on horseback for an overnight journey. At dark he stopped to stay with a farmer acquaintance whose pantry was nearly bare at that point in time. As the two men walked to the house, John’s host explained, “Right glad to see you. Sorry I have nothing for you to eat except rice and peas and a chine of bacon, but we will do the best we can for you. Hop in, John!”
Other curious ideas about Hopping John add even more intrigue to this essentially simple dish made with the most basic of ingredients. A penny may be placed under each individual plate of Hopping John at the table to increase good luck. Extreme enthusiasts encourage eating at least 365 peas in a serving so good luck thrives every day of the year. Some celebrations include a bowl of Hopping John and a glass of champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve. If the leftovers of Hopping John are frugally eaten on Jan. 2, the dish becomes Skipping Jenny or Limping Kate, and the likelihood for prosperity in the new year increases.
Enthusiasm for Hopping John also found its way into Southern Literature. In her 1946 novel, “The Member of the Wedding,” Carson McCullers explains her main character’s amusing passion for this Southern staple. “Now hopping-john was F. Jasmine’s very favorite food. She had always warned them to wave a plate of rice and peas before her nose when she was in her coffin, to make certain there was no mistake; for if a breath of life was left in her, she would sit up and eat, but if she smelled the hopping-john, and did not stir, then they could just nail down the coffin and be certain she was truly dead.”
While the origin of the name and the folklore surrounding this dish encourage continuous speculation and use of the imagination, Hopping John also has definite qualities. Black-eyed peas are actually beans and like rice, offer significant protein. Beans and rice each have their own protein value which is based on the pattern of amino acids. Alone, each one of these food items lacks specific amino acids. But when beans and rice are paired, they supplement each other and the combination offers a very high quality protein. This time of year, almost the beginning of an essentially clean slate, when many will resolve to try to make healthier food choices, beans and rice together offer one easy solution for meeting that goal.
The following recipe for Hopping John developed from two recipes in Craig Claiborne’s “Southern Cooking.” Claiborne was a pre-eminent food journalist, restaurant critic, and was referred to by his peers as a “food giant.” He also worked as the food editor of the New York Times for 30 years, breaking ground as the first male food editor of a major American newspaper.
Born and raised in Mississippi, Claiborne had the privilege to grow up in the kitchen of his mother’s boarding house where the delicious food was carefully and thoughtfully prepared. While he was professionally trained in Switzerland, he always noted that observing his mother and her kitchen staff was the foundation for his devotion to the art of food preparation.
In their original form, Claiborne’s two recipes called for bacon or salt pork. Smoked ham hocks or ham leftovers can be substituted. Offering a leaner alternative, Canadian bacon works well. A healthy, flavorful rendition of this recipe includes making homemade chicken or turkey broth from a smoked bird, refrigerating it overnight, and then skimming off the layer of fat before using the broth. If the smoky-tasting broth is carefully seasoned while cooking, no form of fat such as bacon or ham is necessary. Traditionally, white rice is used, but it can be replaced with brown rice, which offers a nutty taste and fiber rich whole grain. Make this recipe a few days before you serve it to maximize its flavor.
1 pound dried black-eyed peas
1 cup of each, finely chopped: carrots, celery, onion, and bell pepper
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Chicken or turkey stock- approximately 6-8 cups
Seasonings of choice to taste: Seasoned salt, seasoned pepper, garlic powder, hot sauce, bay leaves, thyme
Meat of choice: Ham, smoked ham, Canadian bacon
Optional garnish: Cherry tomatoes, grated cheese, green onions
1. Soak the peas overnight. Then rinse and drain them.
2. Sauté the carrots, celery, onion, and bell pepper in a small amount of butter or olive oil.
3. Add the peas, vinegar, seasonings, meat to suit, and enough stock to cook the peas.
4. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for about an hour. Watch and stir occasionally from the bottom throughout the cooking process.
5. Add more stock and simmer until the peas are done. Adjust the seasonings and add more meat, if desired, just before serving.
6. Serve over rice with garnishes.
Amidst a history of entertaining tales and legends, Hopping John yields comforting nourishment to the body and the soul. This straightforward partnership of peas and rice easily delivers a wholesome package of benefits throughout the year — good luck, good taste, and good health.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890