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Hoppin’ John: a traditional Southern dish for New Year’s Day

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Originally written on December 2021. Updated 2022

Jump in the New Year with Hoppin’ John, a traditional New Year’s Day dish, and luck will follow you all year long! Or so they say..
Hoppin’ John, also known as “Happy Jack,” “Happy John,” and “Hop-in-John”, is a dish traditionally eaten in the southern United States on New Year’s Day.
Dating back to the early 1800s, it is made with black-eyed peas (also known as cow peas), rice, and meat, usually pork, in the form of bacon or ham.
There are many variations to traditional Hoppin’ John. Some cook the black-eyed peas and rice in one pot, while others insist on simmering them separately.
Some also like to add the collard greens to the pot, but the favorite way to eat a Hoppin’ John meal is with collard greens and corn bread.

For some, the tradition of eating Hoppin’ John begins at midnight, New Year’s Eve, when the dish is served with a Champagne toast, but New Year’s Day is the traditional day to enjoy the dish.
Any leftover can be eaten on later days, but be aware that the name of the dish changes to Skippin’ Jenny!
Apparently, stretching the dish into leftovers demonstrates your sense of frugality and promises even greater prosperity in the new year.

Well…but what makes Hoppin’ John so special?
Its ingredients have symbolic importance, and eating this dish on New Year’s Day portends good fortune in the new year.
In short, black-eyed peas represent coins, collard greens represent green backs (dollars), or cash.
Corn bread represents gold while pork, especially ham hocks, recall the cheap cuts of meat provided to slaves.
Tomatoes, if included, represent health.
Sometimes, the cook slips a dime into the dish before serving, and It is said that wealth awaits the diner who gets the dime, hopefully without a chipped tooth, too.
Some say that good luck visits those who count the black-eyed peas on their plate for a hint at the amount of luck or wealth that will ensue.
The custom of eating all but three of the black-eyed peas on your plate promises a trio of benefits—luck, wealth, and romance.
According to the legend, Sephardic Jews served black-eyed peas during Rosh Hashanah, a special festival which celebrates Jewish New Year, in the hope of fertility and good fortune.

Hoppin’ John, also known to many as Carolina Peas and Rice, is considered Southern cuisine, mainly associated with North and South Carolina, but especially the Sea Islands, a cluster of islands stretching along the coats of South Carolina and northern Georgia.
Historians believe that the original recipe was created by African slaves, who introduced black-eyed peas to America and grew them in small gardens on rice plantations.
This is probably only partly true, as newly abducted Africans were lucky to have clothes on their backs, and they certainly weren’t encouraged or even allowed to bring sacks of planting grain along with them. What is more likely is that slave traders saw black-eyed peas as an economical and easy way to feed their cargo.
Either way, the Low Country of South Carolina was an area where plantation owners searched long and hard for a crop that would flourish in the hot, muggy weather. Rice grew well in the river deltas, so it was a natural choice, but the white farmers had no real experience with cultivating rice on a large scale.
Enter the slave trade and enslaved West Africans who had grown rice for generations.
Some sources also suggest that cattle grazed on black-eyed peas in the Carolinas in the early 1700s.
The peas helped to suppress weeds and added nutrition to the soil, and therefore the livestock.

In any case, the first appearance of the recipe for Hoppin’ John appeared in 1847 in a book titled “The Carolina Housewife”, and it’s important to note that everything was cooked together in the same pot:

First put on the peas, and when half boiled, add the bacon. When the peas are well boiled, throw in the rice, which must first be washed and gravelled. When the rice has been boiling half an hour, take the pot off the fire and put it on coals to steam, as in boiling rice alone.

The last instruction reflects the traditional Carolina way of making rice, and isn’t quite like most people make it today.
Rather than cooking it 20 minutes until all the water was absorbed, cooks boiled it in a large amount of salted water until the grains had become swollen. Then the excess water was drained off and the pot was left on the ashes to allow to “soak”—that is, to essentially steam over low heat till each of the grains stood dry and perfectly separate and distinct.

There are many tales or legends that explain how Hoppin’ John got its name:
according to one version of the story, “Hoppin’ John” was a handicapped man who cooked and sold the dish in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1841.
One tradition, on th other hand, has slave children hopping around the dinner table as the dish was brought in from the kitchen while, a more dubious explanation suggests that in South Carolina it was customary to invite a guest to dinner by saying, “Hop in, John.” But It’s obscure because nobody in South Carolina actually says that.
But most food historians think the name derives from a French term for dried peas, “pois pigeons.”

It’s also uncertain why the dish became associated with New Year’s and good luck. The most likely story is that enslaved people would often have the period between Christmas and New Year’s off, since no crops were growing at that time.
Hoppin’ John was, and still is, often eaten with collard greens, which can resemble paper money, and “golden” cornbread, while the peas themselves represent coins.
So, for this New Year’s Day, try to get your hands on some Sea Island Red Peas, Carolina Gold rice, and some good old-fashioned smoky bacon.
Cook them together in the same pot until the grains of rice and the peas stand separate, and the rice dyed a purplish-red hue from the peas.
I can’t guarantee it will bring you more money in 2022, but you’ll certainly enjoy true riches on your plate!

Images from web – Google Research

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