Hoppin’ John By Any Name

This New Year’s Day meal has as many variations as it has names, and as many arguments over the derivation of the names, and over the contents of the dish.

One thing is certain: Lots of Southern folk, especially black folk, and lots of transplanted Southern folk eat the Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day for good luck. To be perfectly proper, one needs to also eat greens, usually collards, for money. Our family usually ate kale instead of collards because Daddy grew it in his garden and it always tasted better after it had frozen. I cheat and sauté a little garlic in olive oil and then pour it over spinach. This year I may even cheat more and use some sort of frozen greens.

The normal accompaniment in our house was homemade corn bread, which as far as I know doesn’t have any symbolic significance. It just tasted good with the peas and rice.

The name has various origins. What’s Cooking America offers several theories. I had never seen the saying “rice for riches, peas for peace” until I saw it on this site.

My New England family did not have any tradition of eating this dish until my great-uncle Frank Chisholm, born in South Carolina and raised in Georgia, married into the family. He and my father disagreed about most everything, but somehow Uncle Frank got Daddy started on Hoppin’ John. Daddy’s Creole family on the bayou didn’t have any Hoppin’ John tradition either. For them it was red beans and rice, traditionally on Monday. But by the time I came along, my father had pretty much taken over the daily cooking chores. I think Mother got insulted because he used to tell people that he taught her how to cook, which was a blatant lie. He also said he could cook everything at home better than any restaurant. I made him take back his words after I treated him to dinner at a Thai restaurant where he admitted the Chuu-Chi Shrimp was beyond his culinary powers.

Anyway, Daddy fixed Hoppin’ John by browning some salt pork, removing it and adding to a couple of tablespoons of the fat some chopped onion, garlic, and celery. When the vegetables were soft, he restored the salt pork and poured in water and the black-eyed peas which had soaked over night. He seasoned it with bay leaf and a substantial amount of salt and pepper until Mother put herself on salt restriction. The dish cooked on the back of the stove for several hours and just as the peas were getting soft, he added rice. It had to be Uncle Ben’s long grain.

I’ve been making Hoppin’ John for several years now, and have evolved the recipe below, which combines two that I found at Epicurious with my dad’s version, plus a couple of flourishes of my own. If I’m cooking for company I use ham hocks, which are traditional. For me, it’s strictly veggie. There are a couple of don’ts. It is a capital offense to violate them. DO NOT add tomatoes. DO NOT add cheese. Other than those rules, feel free to experiment. Here’s the veggie recipe with approximate measurements. I am stringing the ingredients in narrative form because the space won’t handle double columns.

Hoppin’ John

2 Tbsp. canola or other light oil; 1 medium onion, finely chopped; 1 stalk celery, finely chopped (see Note); 2 cloves garlic, minced; 2 Tbsp. soy bacon bits; 1 bay leaf; 1 tsp. thyme; 3 cups water or veggie broth; 1 cup black-eyed peas; 1/2 cup rice uncooked (see Note); salt and pepper to taste; Tabasco sauce or cayenne pepper to taste; a few drops of Liquid Smoke (see Note).

The day before you intend to cook the dish, rinse and pick over the black-eyed peas. Place in a large glass or other non-corrosive bowl and add water to cover by at least an inch. Discard any peas that float to the top. Soak over night. (See Note for alternatives.) When you’re ready to cook, drain the water and rinse peas.

Heat oil in a large, heavy pot with a lid and sauté onion, celery, and bacon bits until they begin to soften. Toss in a bit of salt and pepper to keep the mixture from browning. When veggies are soft, add garlic and sauté one to two more minutes. Add water or broth, Tabasco sauce, bay leaf, thyme, and drained peas. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook until the peas begin to soften, about 2 hours. Add water or broth if necessary, but don’t stir too much or everything will turn mushy. Stir in rice, cover, and cook 20 to 25 minutes. Add Liquid Smoke and adjust seasonings. Serve with greens and corn bread.

Notes:

Can add finely chopped green bell pepper and/or carrots along with the onion and celery. I use medium grain River rice (grown in my grandparents’ hometown of Abbeville, Louisiana), which seems to absorb more flavor than the traditional long-grain version. If you’re making the meat version, skip the Liquid Smoke. Several diners have suggested that this meal tastes better the day after it was made because the flavors have a chance to “marry.” You can short cut the overnight soaking by boiling the rinsed peas for two minutes and then letting them sit for an hour before adding them to the vegetables or cooking them in a pressure cooker with the veggie broth and seasonings for about 20 minutes. in that case, skip the two hours and just add the rice and Liquid Smoke.

Happy New Year!

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