Hoppin' John, American South's traditional Dish

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Photo: Food & Wine Magazine

A major New Year's food tradition in the American South, Hoppin' John is a dish of pork-flavored field peas or black-eyed peas (symbolizing coins) and rice, frequently served with collards or other cooked greens (as they're the color of money) and cornbread (the color of gold). The dish is said to bring good luck in the new year.

Different folklore traces the history and the name of this meal, but the current dish has its roots in African and West Indian traditions and was most likely brought over by slaves to North America. A recipe for Hoppin' John appears as early as 1847 in Sarah Rutledge's "The Carolina Housewife" and has been reinterpreted over the centuries by home and professional chefs.

Why is it called Hoppin' John?

There is no clear reason how the name “Hoppin’ John” came about, aside from anecdotes. One story is that an old man named Hoppin’ John was well known for selling peas and rice in Charleston, so buyers began to refer to his dish that way.

Historians mostly believe the name is a variation of “pois pigeons”, which is French for “dried peas”.

Hoppin' John ingredients?

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Photo: She Wears Many Hats

Oil. 1 tablespoon olive oil, or use vegetable oil, for cooking the vegetables.

Vegetables. Use 1 large onion, 1 large green bell pepper, 1 stalk of celery (the Cajun Holy Trinity), along with 2 cloves garlic. I also add in 1 jalapeno pepper for extra flavor and some heat. Tasty!

Smoked Ham. I use 1 pound of smoked ham, usually tasso ham, though you can use andouillle or other cuts of pork.

Seasonings. I use 2 tablespoons of my own Cajun seasoning blend, though use your favorite. If you think it will be too spicy, only use 1 tablespoon. You can also use salt and black pepper to taste. Sometimes I toss in a bay leaf or two.

Black Eyed Peas. 1 pound black eyed peas sorted through, rinsed, soaked and drained

Chicken Stock. 4 cups chicken broth or more as needed, though you can use other stocks or broths, such as vegetable or beef.

Rice. Cooked white rice for serving. I prefer to cook them separately. Brown rice is good for this recipe, if you’d prefer.

For Serving. Chopped parsley or green onions and crushed red pepper for serving, as Chilli Peper reports.

How to make Hoppin' John?

First, heat a large pot to medium heat and add in a bit of olive oil.

Cook down the onions, peppers and celery until they are nicely softened.

Add in a bit of garlic and smoked ham (or whatever pork you’re using), and heat them through.

Add in your Cajun seasonings along with your pre-soaked black eyed peas and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat.

Simmer the beans for 1 hour, stirring occasionally, or until the beans are nicely softened, but not mushy. We don’t want no mushy beans!

Serve it over rice.

About the recipe

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Photo: Epicurious

As mentioned, there are many variations of this dish, but one big point of contention is this – do you cook the rice with the beans? Or cook it separately?

The choice is yours. While I have read that the rice is traditionally cooked with the beans and the broth, I’ve seen arguments for both ways, so again, the choice is yours. I chose to cook the rice separately for presentation purposes.

I serve the beans over rice, sometimes as the meal, though you can cook the rice into the pot the last half hour or so.

But Hoppin’ John is great both ways!

Recipe variation

Greens. Aside from choices of pork and whether or not to cook the rice with the beans, popular variations include adding collard greens or spinach to the dish. Any greens will work. Consider Swiss chard, kale, mustard greens, etc.

Tomatoes. I’ve made hoppin’ john with diced tomatoes and loved it. Give that version a try.

Using the jalapeno pepper for a bit of heat and flavor, but bell peppers are great for flavor alone. Consider hotter peppers to please your palate.

Cheese. Some people like to include cheese. Just a bit sprinkled over the top.

The Beans. You CAN use canned or frozen black-eyed peas for this recipe instead of dried. Just follow the recipe and simmer until they are nice and soft. I personally feel you’ll get more flavor from starting with dried beans because the simmering time, and hence flavor building time, is longer.

Slow Cooker. You can make Hoppin’ John in a slow cooker as well. To do so, cook down the vegetables in the pan first, then add them to your slow cooker or crock pot along with the remaining ingredients. Cook them on high for 4-5 hours, or on low for 8-10 hours, or until the beans are softened but not mushy.

What do the US people do on New Year's Day?

The start of New Year's Day, at midnight, is heralded by fireworks, parties and special events, which are often televised. Very few people have to work on the day itself. For many it is a day of recovery from the New Year's Eve celebrations the previous night. In some towns and cities, parades are held and special football games are played.

The birth of the first baby in the New Year is often celebrated with gifts to his or her parents and appearances in local newspapers and on local news shows. Many people make New Year's resolutions. These are usually promises to themselves that they will improve something in their own lives. Common New Year's resolutions are to stop smoking or drinking alcohol, to lose weight, exercise more or to live a healthier lifestyle.

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