Hunting and Gathering: Hoppin' John

Hunting and Gathering: Hoppin' John

by Lisa Barlow

Happy New Year There are myriad superstitions involving food that I ignore. But a few I hold fast to for no other reason than they are habit, and to question the ridiculousness of them would be living life a little too seriously.

If the wishbone makes it intact after carving a roast chicken, I grab my end, dream big and twist. At friends’ weddings, I throw rice or seeds like all the other guests, blessing the bride and groom with a fruitful union and messy hair. When salt is spilled in the kitchen, I throw a pinch over my left shoulder to stave off bad luck, if not the annoyance of the sprinkled person behind me.

And I always eat black-eyed peas on New Years day. The dish is called Hoppin’ John and there are lots of theories why some people eat it for good luck, with a slew of others as to how it got its name.

Hoppin' John Traditionally the dish is served in the South on New Year’s Day, sometimes at the stroke of midnight.  It is supposed to bring luck and prosperity throughout the year ahead and is often accompanied by other symbolic foods such as collard greens, which are the color of money, and cornbread, which is the color of gold. If you are really sticking to tradition, you will scoop at least 365 black-eyed peas into your bowl to insure luck every day. But that’s a lot of beans, especially if you’ve caroused a little too aggressively the night before and are feeling delicate. 

Black-eyed peas, also called cowpeas, first came to the Americas from West Africa on Slave ships in the early 1700’s and became a food staple for slaves throughout the South. The concept of black-eyed peas symbolizing luck dates back to the Civil War. It is thought that while Sherman’s troops burned or destroyed many crops, they passed over the humble black-eyed pea, inadvertently leaving it as nourishment for the surviving Confederates.

And why call it Hoppin’ John? None of the theories are too plausible. Did Ma call out to Pa “Hop in, John, the beans are ready?” Did a crippled old man hobble about the streets of Charleston hawking beans? Did French speaking Caribbeans introduce a dish called “pois a pigeon” to Untied States Southerners who mangled the name? Who knows. My own theory involves the propensity for undercooked beans to make one gassy, which gives a whole new meaning to tooting in the New Year.

In my family, we are pretty liberal with the recipe. I am less likely to boil up a whole mess of beans with hog jowl and rice, and more inclined to make a lighter black-eyed pea salad. It is delicious any time of year, but particularly so when infused with that special ingredient, a little dash of kismet.

Hoppin’ John

2 cups dried black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained
6 cups chicken broth
2 Bay leaves
2 cups water
1 cup brown or white rice
4 strips bacon, chopped.
1 red onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 small red pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
3 Tbs olive oil
2 Tbs cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes (optional)


    •    Place beans, chicken stock and bay leaves in a stockpot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered until beans are tender (about 1 to 1 ½ hours). Add water or stock if necessary. Drain when cooked and put beans in a large bowl.
    •    Cook rice in water with a pinch of salt until done (about 20 minutes for white rice, 45 minutes for brown). Add cooked rice to beans.
    •    Mix oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper. Dress beans and rice, adding more oil and vinegar if you’d like.
    •    Add bacon, onion, celery and red pepper.
    •    Add cayenne or red pepper if you’d like a bit of heat.
    •    Chill for an hour or so in the fridge.

Dig in and count your blessings. You are lucky already and it’s going to be a great year!

LB2 Lisa Barlow is a writer and photographer who divides her time between New York, Telluride and  San Pancho, Mexico. An enthusiastic omnivore, she specializes in stories about food.

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