Every new year, people — especially those whose roots run deep in the South — soak black-eyed peas to make their favorite good luck dish, Hoppin’ John. Beloved by all but commonly misunderstood, the dish of rice, peas and pork is traditional in the Lowcountry, the coastal areas of South Carolina, but it has found its way to tables around the country through two mass migrations of African people and their descendants.
It’s a recipe older than its first written mentions in the early 1800s, and it’s older than the wives’ tales and legends it comes from. There is no doubt as to why it resembles the waakye found in Ghana, made with black-eyed peas or cowpeas, or why it’s so familiar to the rice and peas you find in the Caribbean, Brazilian feijoada, or the red beans and rice of Louisiana.
The two exoduses — the forced transatlantic slave trade and the Great Migration of African Americans in the early 1900s — helped make the recipe commonplace. The slave trade introduced the cowpea to the Americas, but rice-and-bean dishes already were being made and eaten in areas where rice grew wild.
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Brought for their physical labor, enslaved Africans were masters of domesticating rice in the humid, wet regions they toiled.
The famed Carolina Gold rice, once lost but now “found” again, made Charleston one of the wealthiest cities of the new America and changed the landscape of the “rice coast” of the Deep South.
The enslaved Africans’ skill in cooking as well as growing rice, along with the cowpeas’ ability to grow in sandy soil, meant one-pot meals using them both were a means of retaining culture and feeding families nutrient-rich, stick-to-your-bones meals.
As the slave trade came to an end, rice planters lost the free labor force that had performed the dangerous work of growing and harvesting rice in the marshy areas. With industrialization came the ability to grow the more common Asian long-grained rice on a larger, cheaper scale.
Cowpeas met a similar fate.
What wasn’t lost were the recipes that Black people — and the people they cooked for and fed outside of their culture — loved, such as Hoppin’ John.
Gullah families still living on the Sea Islands kept seeds and kept growing (in very small quantities) the local, heirloom peas and rice. But during the Great Migration, Black people who left the South couldn’t find the ingredients they were familiar with, so black-eyed peas, arguably the most popular cowpea across the world, were used in Hoppin’ John instead.
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Hoppin’ John is more than just a meal, because it, like so much of Gullah Geechee and Black culture, is a physical, tangible manifestation of a spiritual act of Hoodoo. Not only are we directly connecting our foodways to our ancestors, we are calling upon them: leaving them an offering, and then taking in that offering, asking for blessings of good luck, health and prosperity.
Hoodoo, the spiritual practices created and maintained out of traditional African religions and other New World religions and practices by the descendants of enslaved West Africans, has also found itself immersed in mainstream and non-Black cultures. And while Hoodoo’s deep, magical connections between food and spirit are recognized and practiced by Black people, they should be honored by those who eat Hoppin’ John outside of the culture as well, even those who don’t practice Hoodoo.
In keeping with the dish’s history and meaning, it absolutely must be made in one pot, with the meat, rice and peas all cooked together, forming the fluffy pilau (or pirloo, or pilaf) we know and love.
While the rice and peas are the star of the show, smoky salty pork gives the dish its distinct flavor. Pork crosses cultural boundaries around the world, with many sharing the belief that eating it, especially at the start of a new year, will bring wealth and good luck. Many people nowadays shy from eating pork, especially the fattiest parts, but it serves as the base and the literal meat and bones of Hoppin’ John.
The presence of salty, fatty, sometimes smoked meats in such dishes has created a false narrative that much of the food Black people eat is unhealthy, or was born from scraps given to Black people to make do with. But rural southern Black people often had their own gardens or farms, which surely included hogs to sell and to eat, in addition to beans and peas.
It’s natural to use as many edible parts of an animal or a plant as possible because nothing should go to waste, and tougher animal parts served well in dishes that needed to be simmered for a long time. Especially with expensive ingredients like pork, these dishes would be served in large portions within families and entire communities.
Truth be told, the smoked or fatty meats give a lot of our food its deep, unctuous soul. The fat lends each grain of rice and every single small pea a generous boost of flavor, and the salt in the meat seasons a rich stock and gives the peas a creamier texture. Most importantly, the meat’s protein makes the dish filling, especially when it’s served along with collard or other leafy greens.
Fable has it that the real Hoppin’ John was a Gullah man who walked the cobblestone streets in the Lowcountry selling the dish, like other street vendors of the time, in the singsong Gullah and West African style of call-and-response. Hobbling down the narrow streets, ol’ Hoppin’ John, as the Gullah Geechee Nation’s website says, is surely an ancestor who has to be delighted that every year around this time, so many sing and call his name and make this dish for good luck, and that the tradition continues.
Reddish brown cowpeas, or field peas, give the dish its signature flavor and color, and lend a sweet-savory nuttiness to a broth made from smoked meat. Traditionally, bacon, salt pork or ham hock is used, but here we substituted smoked turkey.
Carolina Gold rice, a crop raised by enslaved people that made land owners in the United States, the Caribbean and United Kingdom wealthy, is used here as well, to make the recipe as true to its roots as possible. The medium-grain rice, with its delicate floral flavor, is starchier and fluffier than standard long-grain white rice, qualities that help it to cook into individual grains. If you substitute another rice, you will have to adjust the amount of liquid in the pot, as well as the cooking time.
To make the Hoppin’ John on the stovetop or with pork, see VARIATIONS.
Make Ahead: The field peas must be soaked for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
Storage: Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 4 days. Reheat in a 325-degree oven until warmed through.
Where to Buy: Smoked turkey necks and wings can be found at well-stocked supermarkets, butcher shops and online. Field peas and Carolina Gold rice can be found at well-stocked supermarkets as well as online, from purveyors such as Anson Mills, Camellia and Marsh Hen Mill.
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In a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven over high heat, combine the water, smoked meat, onion and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and bring to a rolling boil. Reduce the heat to medium, partially cover and cook until the meat is extremely tender and falls off the bone, 3 to 4 hours. During that time, check the pot every 30 minutes or so, and add water as needed to keep the meat covered. The broth should become a murky yellow-brown, with some fat on its surface.
Once the meat is cooked, remove the pot from the heat. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to a cutting board and let cool slightly. Using your hands, carefully pick the meat and skin off the bones; discard the bones and skin, and return the meat to the pot with the broth.
Drain the field peas, rinse them under cold running water and drain them again. Add the peas to the pot, along with the thyme, the remaining salt, the garlic and onion powders, pepper and paprika, and stir to combine. The broth should easily cover the peas; if it doesn’t, add water until it does. Turn the heat to medium, cover the pot and let the peas simmer until al dente but not so tender you could mash them with a fork, 30 to 45 minutes. Check every 15 minutes or so and add more water as necessary, 1/4 cup at a time, to keep the peas submerged and quite brothy. The peas should be slightly swollen (they won’t be quite doubled in size) and the broth a rich brown. Taste a pea: It should have picked up the flavors of the spices and smoky meat.
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.
Check the level of the broth in the pot; you’ll need about 4 cups of liquid before adding the rice. If you’re unsure, place a colander over a large bowl and drain the peas and meat. Measure the broth in a large liquid measuring cup, adding water or pouring off liquid to reach 4 cups.
Return the pea mixture and broth to the Dutch oven, add the rice and stir to combine.
Cover the Dutch oven, place in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed all of the liquid. Remove from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes, without removing the lid, so the rice can steam. Carefully uncover and fluff with a fork: The rice should have absorbed broth and picked up its color.
Serve family-style from the Dutch oven or from a large bowl.
To make the dish on the stovetop, prepare as directed and then add rice to the pot over high heat. Bring to a boil and boil for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover with foil and/or a tightfitting lid, and cook, undisturbed, until the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. (Check at the 20-minute mark by carefully picking up the pot and gently giving it a shake; if there’s unabsorbed water, you will feel it moving around the pot. Do not open the pot.) Remove from the heat and let stand with the lid on for an additional 15 minutes. Uncover and fluff with a fork.
To make the dish using bacon or salt pork, use 8 slices of thick-cut bacon or 10 ounces of salt pork. In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, cook the meat until crisp and brown, with its fat rendered. Transfer half of the bacon or pork and all of the drippings to the pot when the peas go in, and proceed as directed in the recipe above. Once the rice is finished cooking and steaming, gently stir the remaining bacon or pork into the rice and serve.
Per serving (1 cup), based on 14
Calories: 259; Total Fat: 4 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 22 mg; Sodium: 532 mg; Carbohydrates: 41 g; Dietary Fiber: 5 g; Sugar: 3 g; Protein: 16 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
From chef and food writer Amethyst Ganaway.
Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to email@example.com.
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