The Historic Problem With Hoppin' John

urbanfoodie33, Flickr

New Year's Day is approaching, which means we need to have a little talk about Hoppin' John. A savory blend of rice and black-eyed peas, it's served alongside collard greens as the traditional New Year's Day meal in the South and, increasingly, in other parts of the country. Eating those two dishes will ensure prosperity in the new year, and the collards represent greenbacks and the black-eyed peas coins. Or so they say.

For a long time, if offered a plate of collards and Hoppin' John on New Years, I would have been inclined to say, "keep the change," for I never understood why anyone made a fuss over a mushy mound of rice and black-eyed peas.

My own initial effort at making the dish began with a can of black-eyed peas and store-brand white rice and ended up in the garbage. Later, seeing the error of my ways, I tried starting with dried black-eyed peas, cooking them in homemade chicken stock and goosing them with onions, garlic, and a parade of herbs in a futile attempt to impose flavor on a fundamentally mild dish.

Hoppin' John is the textbook example of how hard it can be to recreate the traditional dishes of the antebellum Southern kitchen, and it's not just a matter of recipe or technique. You can dig up old 19th century "receipts" (as they were called back then), follow them to the letter, and still end up mystified that anyone could ever have loved such stuff, much less decided it was an iconic Southern dish.

The problem with once-great iconic food often comes down to ingredients: A key element of the dish either is no longer anymore or, more frequently, is widely available but in a greatly debased form. In the case of Hoppin' John, modern versions can come up short because every single one of its ingredients are but pale shadows of their former selves.

In The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection (1998), the late culinary historian Karen Hess dug deep into the roots of Hoppin' John, which she categorized as one of the "bean pilaus of the African diaspora." Pilau (or, as it is often spelled, perlo or purloo) was the signature dish of the Carolina rice lands. Related to the Turkish pilaf and the Spanish paella, it consists of rice that is washed and pre-soaked then simmered in a flavored broth until the liquid is almost fully absorbed and each grain stands out separate and distinct.

In classic Carolina pilaus, chicken or shrimp were often cooked in the pot along with the rice. When the broth was flavored with bacon and peas or beans incorporated, it became the dish known as Hoppin' John. That technique of cooking rice and beans together was African in origin, and it spread to every part of the Americas that had a significant African presence. Each location developed its own distinctive rice and bean dishes—the Moros y Cristianos of Cuba (made with black beans), the Pois et Riz Collé of Louisiana (made with red beans), and the Hoppin' John of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

The original ingredients of Hoppin' John are simple: one pound of bacon, one pint of peas, and one pint of rice. The earliest appearance in print seems to be in Sarah Rutledge's The Carolina Housewife (1847), 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, 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 snowy white grains stood dry and perfectly separate and distinct.

Also key is the kind of peas used, for early Hoppin' John recipes call not for black-eyed peas but "red peas" or "cow peas." In 1895, visitors from all over the country sampled Hopping John at the Atlanta Exposition. An article in the Cleveland Leader captured a northern housekeeper's reaction to it. "I tried to make the dish once . . . and it was squishy and messy and unlovely to look upon. Then I ate the Southern one. It was delightful. The grains of rice and the peas stood apart, yet together, as it were, the purplish peas colored the rice to their own hue, and the whole was seasoned satisfactorily with savory bacon." That purplish hue is a hallmark of Hoppin' John made with old-fashioned peas.

As for the origin of the dish's name, I can't put it any better than Karen Hess did in The Carolina Rice Kitchen: "Most of the proposed origins are demeaning to African-Americans, representing pop etymology of a low order." Some of these proposed origins, I would add, are demeaning to human intelligence in general, like the notion that it comes from "Hop in, John," supposedly an obscure South Carolina way of inviting a guest to come eat. It's obscure because nobody in South Carolina actually says that. (Such explanations belong to the school of food etymology that the Oxford English Dictionary has termed "an absurd conjecture suggested merely by the sound of the word" and I like to call "just making shit up.")

The most commonly accepted explanation is that Hoppin' John is a corruption of the French phrase pois à pigeon, meaning "pigeon peas." Hess discounts that etymology, advancing her own contention that it comes via a long, circuitous route from the combination of kachang, a Malay word for peas, and bhat, the Hindi word for cooked rice, but I find that no more satisfying than any of the others. Lacking any supporting evidence, we might be best off to just say we don't know where it came from and leave it at that.

For what it's worth, though, numerous accounts of from the early 20th century note that when Charlestonians said "Hoppin' John," they put the emphasis on the second word.

A Rice and Bean Dish

Hoppin' John Gets Lucky

Miriam Kato, Flickr

I've been unable to turn up any 19th century accounts that link Hoppin' John with New Year's Day, though it's likely that plenty of people in Charleston had made it a custom to eat in on that day. By the early 20th century, the connection with luck on the New Year was clearly established.

In October 1907, the Quality Shop advertised in the Charleston News and Courier that they had just received the season's first shipment of cowpeas and noted, "It isn't New Year's yet, but this old Southern dish is always hailed with delight." As early as 1909, the members of the Hibernian Society gathered to enjoy, as the Charleston Evening Post described it, "The New Year's hopping-john, a dish of cowpeas, bacon and rice that invariably gives good luck for the whole year to those who eat it on New Years day." The Society still holds its traditional New Year's Day Hoppin' John dinner today.

Though clearly African in origin, its inclusion in cookbooks like the Sarah Rutledge's Carolina Housewife, written by the daughter of Governor Edward Rutledge and a member of Charleston's elite planter society, indicates that even before the Civil War the dish was being eaten by black and white residents of all classes in the Lowcountry. By the turn of the 20th century, it was one of the featured stars of the Charleston table. When President William Howard Taft visited the city in November 1909, he was treated to a dinner of rice pilau, okra soup, and Hoppin' John.

But something changed over the course of the 20th century, making it hard to imagine anyone serving Hoppin' John to a visiting dignitary today, especially if it's not New Year's Day.

Hoppin' John Trips and Falls

Old fashioned red cowpeas. Robert Moss

If you try to cook Sarah Rutledge's recipe for Hoppin' John using bacon, rice, and black-eyed peas from the supermarket, you're probably going to be pretty disappointed. Today's ingredients have been transformed by a century of hybridization, mechanization, and standardization to meet the demands of an industrialized, cost-minimizing food system.

As we've already seen, Southern stone-ground cornmeal was replaced by hybridized corn picked unripe, air-dried, and bashed to powder by steel roller mills, forcing cooks to add sugar to cornbread to simulate its former sweetness. Tomatoes are bred to be as indestructible as racket balls, and they're picked green, shipped to supermarkets across the country, and get a good zap of ethylene gas so they arrive perfectly round, bright red, and flavorless. Heirloom breeds of pigs, with meat so red it's almost purple and marbled with thick layers of fat, gave way to lean, factory-raised American Yorkshire engineered to pass as white meat.

All three of the main ingredients in Hoppin' John have suffered a similar fate. Let's start with the bacon. Not only are the breeds the pork bellies come from different, but so is the way those bellies are treated.

The Bacon

In the old days, salt and smoke were used to preserve the meat, which cured for weeks and then was smoked for two days or more. Today's commodity bacon is processed in less than a day: brine-injected, flash-smoked, and packed for shipping.

The Rice

The original Hoppin' John was made with the famed Carolina Gold rice, a non-aromatic long-grained variety prized for its lush and delicate flavor. But that rice was ill-suited for modern agriculture. The Lowcountry tidal swamps were too soft to support mechanical harvesters, and the rice required far too much manual labor to be viable in the post-Emancipation world. A hurricane in 1911 effectively finished off the industry in the Carolinas, and American rice production shifted to Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, where planters grew new hybridized varieties on dry ground.

The new rice varieties are mechanically processed—heat-dried, polished, and degerminated. They aren't nearly as nutty and flavorful as the old Carolina Gold and not nearly as nutritious, either, since the processing strips away all of the bran and germ. Until well after World War II, much of rural South Carolina still depended on a diet heavy on rice and beans, but that rice was the new kind brought in from the Gulf regions. During the winter months when fresh produce was unavailable, rural South Carolinians started suffering from malnutrition due to lack of proteins and nutrients. A 1956 law required that all rice sold in the state be enriched with the very vitamins and minerals that mechanical processing had stripped away.

The Peas

Finally, let's address the thorniest issue: the peas. It's a hard to know out exactly when black-eyed peas started being used in Hoppin' John, for people have tended to use the terms cowpeas, field peas, black-eyed peas interchangeably. All these beans (they're technically beans, not peas) belong to the species Vigna unguiculata, and they're often called "crowder peas" because of the way the beans crowd together in the pod.

Red cowpeas have a black-eye in the center just like their paler cousins, so they can be referred to as "red black-eyed peas." To complicate matters, in the 19th century there were any number of landrace and cross-bred varieties, often unique to just one or two family's fields. These included the Sea Island Red Pea, which was once a key rotation crop on the Sea Island just south of Charleston but whose production was abandoned when rice growing ended.

As Adrian Miller relates in Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate as a Time (2013), black-eyed peas spread more widely than other cowpea varieties. They were eaten throughout the South by both blacks and whites alike, but they were looked down on as poor-people food and were slow to take on in the north. For most of the 20th century, the navy bean was preferred by most northern shoppers, except for the African-Americans who had arrived during the Great Migration. Miller posits that these expatriate Southerners ended up substituting black-eye peas the traditional red peas in Hoppin' John because the red versions weren't available outside of the Carolinas.

The two peas aren't the same. Old-fashioned red cowpeas are firmer than black-eyed peas and have a deep, rich flavor that can only be described as "meaty." You walk a fine line when preparing dried commodity black-eyes: cook them too briefly and they'll be unpleasantly crunchy in the middle; cook them too long and they turn to mush. You don't have that problem with red cowpeas, for their texture holds up well, staying firm and chewy even with long, slow cooking.

But eating Hoppin' John on New Year's Day was the tradition, and Southerners kept that tradition going even when the original ingredients were not available. During the middle part of the 20th century, Hoppin' John was introduced to the rest of the country, too, as recipes for the dish were published in dozens of cookbooks and hundreds of newspaper columns nationwide, often around the New Year.

Most of the non-Charleston recipes for "Hopping John" (it tended to be spelled with the "g" until the 1960s) call for black-eyed peas instead of red cowpeas. This seems a matter of practicality since, as the Seattle Daily Times noted in 1929, "Cow peas are well known to Southerners although they are unobtainable in other parts of the country."

In an important shift, many of these recipes specified that the rice and peas be cooked separately and combined at the end. This might have seemed sensible to cooks unfamiliar the the Carolina way of cooking rice, but it also meant that the grains wouldn't get imbued while cooking with any of the smoky, savory flavor of the bacon-laced broth.

Not surprisingly, 20th century recipes started adding in other stuff to augment the flavor of the rice and beans. Hoppin' John was boosted by the federal government and countless home economists during the Depression years, appearing in a series of publications offering advice for buying and making food for "keeping the family well fed at low cost." Eminently affordable, rice and beans were a natural choice, but one suspects the Yankees writing the recipes had at best a passing familiarity with traditional Hoppin' John.

One particularly durable recipe from federal government shopping guidelines was "Hopping John with Tomato Sauce." It called for soaking and cooking two cups of dried beans (variety not specified), browning salt pork and chopped onion in a pan, then combining them all with cooked rice and serving with tomato sauce. That recipe was published in newspapers from Boston to San Francisco, and "home agents" (cooking instructors) taught it to members of women's clubs from Idaho to Greensboro, North Carolina, where the attendees noted that to them, at least, Hopping John was "a new one."

In 1935, the Daily Illinois State Journal noted that "Mrs. Roosevelt served Hopping John at the White House not long ago and everybody in the country started buying blackeyed peas....They save money, they add proteins to the diet and above all, savorily [sic] seasoned, they make the best kind of eating."

In recent decades, cooks have since gone to even further lengths to try to impart some sort of flavor on black-eyed pea-based Hoppin' John, and today's recipes tend to be downright elaborate. Emeril Lagasse's Food Network version starts with a ham hock and sautéed onion, celery, green pepper, and garlic, and the peas are cooked in chicken stock with bay leaves and thyme. Ree Drummond of the popular Pioneer Woman website "keeps it basic" in her formulation, though like Emeril she calls for simmering fresh black-eyed peas in chicken broth seasoned with aromatics, ham hocks, and cayenne. Down in New Orleans, chef Stephen Stryjewski concocted an amped-up version that incorporates tasso and jalapenos. In all three, the black-eyed peas are cooked separately and either spooned over cooked rice or mixed in with it just before serving.

The Return

urbanfoodie33, Flickr

I can't blame anyone for trying to gussy up modern Hoppin' John, since for a long time that was the only way to end up with a dish that was savory and flavorful. A few decades ago, though, a small group of food lovers began to realize the great bounty that had been lost and have gone about trying to recapture and revitalize heirloom vegetables and grains as well as heritage breeds of animals and traditional preservation techniques.

In 1986, Richard Schulze, a Savannah ophthalmologist, planted a crop of Carolina Gold rice at his Turnbridge Plantation using seeds propagated from a few grains of Carolina Gold that had been held in a USDA seed bank since 1927. Two years later, he harvested a ten thousand pound crop, and through the efforts of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, a small group of rice farmers now produce a sufficient supply to sell to restaurant chefs and home cooks interested in trying their hand at classic recipes.

Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills sells Carolina Gold rice online, and he has worked with farmers in the Lowcountry to cultivate heirloom beans and peas, too, including Sea Island Red Peas. A few smokehouse operators like Benton's in Madisonville, Tennessee, and Edwards of Surry, Virginia, were still practicing their craft quietly out in the countryside, and their rich, deeply-smoky products have been rediscovered by chefs and home cooks alike.

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 apart, the rice dyed a purplish-red hue from the peas. I can't guarantee it will bring you more money in 2015, but you'll certainly enjoy true riches on your plate.