If you grew up in the southern part of the U.S., or have family there, or have in-laws or neighbours or co-workers from there, you will have encountered the dish of black-eyed peas and rice known, somewhat mysteriously, as Hoppin John. Sometime in the week before Christmas and New Year's one of these Southern people will ask if you have your black-eyed peas ready. If you should see any of them on New Year's Day, they will not only ask if you've had your Hoppin John yet, but will ceremoniously produce a plate of it for you if you have not. This may be the twenty-first century, and we may all be educated people in a digital world, but this humble plate of beans and rice is not optional on New Year's Day, at least not if you're in the South or in range of Southerners.
The origins of Hoppin John, both the dish and its name, are murky at best. The dish itself is thought to have derived from West African bean stews. I've also read that the Southern custom of eating black-eyed peas at New Year's derives from an early group of Sephardic Jewish settlers in Georgia.
(Last year, Quid Plura? blogmaster and friend of the Belfry Jeff Sypeck visited the full-on Gothic Revival synagogue built by the descendants of those Sephardim in Savannah.)
The Sephardic tradition of eating black-eyed peas (and greens) at Rosh Hashana vastly predates the European settlement and practice of slavery in the Americas; indeed it is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, circa 500 CE. Black-eyed peas themselves (a variety of cow or field peas, Vigna unguiculata) are thought to have been first domesticated in West Africa and are an important part of the heritage of that region and its people. So perhaps both groups deserve credit for the custom. In any event, Hoppin John is now eaten by Southerners both black and white, Jewish and gentile, at New Year's to ensure health and prosperity.
The theory is that the peas represent coins, and the greens, paper money. Cornbread (gold) is often served alongside. As for health, it's hard to go wrong with a meal of beans and greens.
The oldest known recipe for a dish called Hoppin John appeared in The Carolina Housewife, by Sarah Rutledge of Charleston, first published in 1847. Her version, a Low Country perlau (pilaf), calls for bacon, red peas, and rice, and may be garnished with fresh mint, 'if liked.' There are now close to 100,00 recipes for Hoppin John on the Web now, if Google is to be believed, so what's one more? My version is adapted from one in my grandmother's handwritten recipe book:
Hoppin John à la Belfry
1 medium onion
2 cups tomatoes with juice (canned stewed tomatoes, chopped up, are fine)
3/4 cup uncooked rice
2 cups cooked black-eyed peas
1 cup chopped blanched greens (collards, kale, turnip, or a combination)
1 tsp vinegar (cider, white wine, or sherry vinegar are good choices)
pinch ground chile or cayenne
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbs parsley, for garnish
optional: 1 lb chopped bacon or crumbled sausage, browned in a skillet, or chopped leftover ham.
Chop the onion and cook with a little oil in a skillet until just golden. Add the rice and stir until the rice is coated with the oil, then add the tomatoes. Bring to a boil, cover, lower heat and simmer 10 minutes (longer if using brown rice -- you want the rice to be not-quite-done-yet).
Add remaining ingredients (except parsley), bring back to the boil, and again lower heat, cover, and simmer for 10-15 minutes more, until the rice is cooked.
Garnish with the parsley, and serve with cornbread. Serves 6.
Happy New Year.