Hungry History

Hoppin’ John: A New Year’s Tradition

By Stephanie Butler
Hoppin' John

DebbiSmirnoff/iStockphoto.com

Forget champagne—in the Southern United States, Hoppin’ John is standard New Year’s fare. This simple, delicious dish of peas, pork and rice has graced holiday tables since the 1800s. Although it’s believed to bring luck and peace in the coming year to anyone who eats it, Hoppin’ John’s history is anything but peaceful. What’s the story behind this New Year’s tradition?

The first recipes for Hoppin’ John appear in cookbooks that date back to the 1840s, although the mixture of dried peas, rice and pork was made by Southern slaves long before then. It seems to have originated in the Low Country of South Carolina, 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.

Although any type of dried peas can be used for Hoppin’ John, the black-eyed pea is the most traditional. This pea happens to have been domesticated in West Africa, which led to the belief that African slaves took the peas with them, planted them in their new surroundings and created a dish that would remind them of their lost homes. This is probably only partly true. 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.

The origins of the name “Hoppin’ John” are slightly less clear. Some say an old, hobbled man called Hoppin’ John became known for selling peas and rice on the streets of Charleston. Others say slave children hopped around the table in eager anticipation of the dish. 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 slaves 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. The peas themselves represent coins. Some families boost the potential of their Hoppin’ John by placing a penny underneath the dishes—or adding extra pork, which is thought to bring more luck.

Our modern Hoppin’ John eschews pork in favor of smoked turkey thighs, which bring flavor but less fat to the meal. We add jalapenos and red bell pepper for a bit of color and spice, and serve the whole thing atop freshly steamed white rice.

NEW YEAR’S HOPPIN’ JOHN

Start to finish: 1 hour
Servings: 10

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup red onion, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1 cup red bell pepper, chopped
2 jalapenos, stemmed and deseeded, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 smoked turkey thighs, skin removed
1 pound black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and rinsed
1 quart low-sodium chicken stock
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
1 teaspoon salt
Salt, black pepper and cayenne to taste
1 cup green onion, chopped
4 cups freshly steamed white rice

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in large soup pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion, celery, bell pepper, jalapenos and garlic, and cook until opaque and lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add the turkey thighs, peas, chicken stock, bay leaf, thyme and a teaspoon of salt. Simmer for 40 minutes, or until peas are creamy and tender. If liquid evaporates, add more stock or water. Adjust seasonings, and garnish with green onions. Serve hot over rice.

Categories: Holidays, New Year's, Rice, Southern Food