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Hoppin' John famous for bringing New Year's pot luck

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By Greg Summers

Most food historians agree that hoppin' John has its roots in Lowcountry South Carolina cuisine. But just how did this rich-tasting, luck-bringing, poor-man's New Year's dish get it's name?

Made of peas, rice, pork and simple spices, hoppin' John is closely related to African and West Indian dishes with similar ingredients and was introduced to America by African slaves who toiled on rice plantations.

Culinary historian Karen Hess, author of "The Carolina Rice Kitchen" devoted an entire chapter to hoppin' John in her book because of its role as a food staple in most slave cabins.

Hess said while most main courses outside the South that feature rice and beans are considered as lowly fare, she doesn't see it that way.

After all, rice and beans take center stage in Asian and Persian cuisine, she said.

"Such dishes are not only cheap and nourishing, but are also delicious," Hess said. "They have been treasured by rich and poor alike in those lands, probably from millennia."

The original hoppin' John recipes that date to the mid-1800s included cow peas or field peas and smoked hog jowl, depending on what most Carolina cooks could get their hands on.

Most hoppin' John recipes evolved over time to include black-eyed peas and ham hock or bacon.

You can use fresh, dried or frozen black-eyed peas, but stay away from canned black-eyed peas; they get too mushy.

However, the one ingredient that has not changed is long grain rice. Long grain rice, because of its narrow shape, stays separate and fluffy after it is cooked.

A 'lucky' tradition

No one is quite sure how, but hoppin' John also evolved as a traditional New Year's Day dish, served with collards.

According to Southern folklore, anyone who eats hoppin' John (good luck) and collards (greenback dollars) on Jan. 1 is guaranteed success throughout the upcoming year.

According to Web site, whatscookingamerica.net, some families take it to extremes, toasting with Champagne and eating a bowl of hoppin' John at the stroke of midnight.

It's also a tradition to put a dime in the hoppin' John, which supposedly guarantees the person who gets it plenty of money the next 365 days.

It's named for who?

While most food historians have been able to trace the roots of hoppin' John, the same can't be said about the origin of its unusual name. There are many tales or legends to explain it.

The four most popular include:

-In times past, a host or hostess would say to their dinner guests, "Hop in John," instead of "y'all dig in." My grandmother always said something similar with her famous, "you boys, take out" line.

-Another story is that young children would jump around the supper table, playing a "Hopping John" game that was accompanied by a rhyme. I don't give that notion too much credit. Most of the elders I grew up around adhered to the time-honored belief that "children should be seen and not heard."

-Some food historians dismiss those two reasons, believing that the name came from a Caribbean dish of peas, rice and salt pork, called "pois a pigeon," which is pronounced something like "pwahahpeejawng." To Americans, it sounded like "hoppin'John," so that's how they said it.

–It came from the streets of Charleston, said Raymond Sokolov.Sokolov is a former food writer and restaurant critic for the New York Times who now writes the column "Eating Out" for the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal.In his book "How to Cook," Sokolov said the dish has been around since at least 1841, when a crippled black man know as "Hopping John" sold it on streets of the port city.

That's the one I'll go with. Some may argue that point with me, but I'd wager my lucky dime that it's a close as any other tale out there. After all, hoppin' John is a South Carolina, Lowcountry dish.

Hoppin' John

Ingredients

2 cups (16 ounces) dried black-eyed peas

1 10-ounce package (at least) sliced country ham hock

1 large white onion, chopped

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

4 cups (32 ounces) low-fat chicken broth

2 cups uncooked long grain white rice

Salt and pepper to taste

Minced green onions, including tops (optional)

Directions

-Prepare dried peas by rinsing and soaking. Remove any peas that float and sort them thoroughly to remove pebbles and dirt and then drain in a colander.

-Place peas and country ham hock slices in a large pot, cover with 8 cups of water and a slight amount of salt and pepper. NOTE: Don't oversalt - part of the salt will be drawn from the ham hock as the peas cook.

-Place pot on medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let stand, covered for 1 to 2 hours. Drain and rinse beans and remove ham hock slices.

-Cut ham hock slices into the bite-size pieces, removing any bones.

-Using the same pot, add soaked beans, ham hock bits, onion, red pepper and chicken broth. Bring to a rolling boil and reduce heat to medium-low, and cook for 90 minutes, or until the peas are tender.

-Stir in rice and cook on low heat for 20 minutes until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.

-Garnish with minced green onions, if desired

-Recipe by Gregory A. Summers