Let’s start off with the fact that no one knows EXACTLY where this dish came from. I was born and raised in Charleston, SC and Hoppin’ John has been a staple on my family's New Year’s table since before I could walk. I can remember my childhood holidays consisting of my sister and I bickering loudly over who would find the hidden dime in the peas (strange I know, and an obvious choking hazard, thanks mom!). That being said, when I asked my mother why she makes it she responded “because her great-grandmother did,” a woman born in the late 1800’s. Seems to be the response for most people who consider it a staple “Because the generations before me have done it.” To me this is the best facet of southern cooking, tradition.
So what is Hoppin’ John?
Hoppin’ John is a traditional holiday dish steeped in rich lowcountry history and always found on a good Southern New Year’s Day table. Consisting of field peas, rice, and pork; hoppin’ john is a one-pot recipe with the addition of vegetables, such as celery and onion added in for increased flavor.
To find out where it came from, let’s dissect the ingredients:
The Field Pea:
“According to Wikipedia, the field pea is known by the common names of cow pea, black-eyed pea, southern pea, yardlong bean, catjang, and crowder pea. They were domesticated in Africa and are one of the oldest crops to be farmed”
Food historians claim that because of their extensive use in Western Africa as early as the 1700’s they were migrated to the southern United States through the slave trade. With this, the lowcountry inherited the Gullah-Geechie cuisine. Hoppin’ John is considered to be a staple of this type of cooking.
The type of field pea called for in the majority of recipes throughout the south is the black eyed pea. In Charleston, we use a different type of pea called the “Sea Island Red Pea”. It is still a field pea and takes its name from the place it was grown and the reddish hue of the bean. The Geechie Boy Mill, located on Edisto Island, SC, which grows popular chef Sean Brock’s Jimmy Red Corn (Did anyone see his Chef’s Table episode on Netflix? If you haven’t definitely check it out!) says that their field pea is an “heirloom legume”. It’s all about tradition and these are the peas I have grown up with.
So what is the other main ingredient that makes up this historical dish?
I am somewhat of a cookbook collector (or hoarder if you ask my family), and I have scoured each one for their unique Hoppin’ John recipes. I looked through more recent cook books as well as some that are passed down through my family, the oldest one from my great-grandmother printed in the 1920s. The recipes I found are all from somewhere in the South and they each have completely different variations of the type of pork used. They range from the more recent recipes using bacon (the overall consensus) to New Orleans Chef and owner of the famous Cochon, Stephen Stryjewski’s use of tasso ham. (He adds a cajun twist with jalapeno and cajun rice, YUM) The oldest recipes I can find have one thing in common, the same thing my mom uses, ham hocks. The original recipes, like the one that I used as an illustration in this post, are made using a ham hock that has been browned on each side to increase flavor and then left in the pot with the boiling peas to further inject flavor. We add bacon as well, but it never tastes as rich and flavorful without the ham hock.
Finally, the Rice can be summed up in two words…
As you can see, these are all ingredients that have traditionally thrived in the Carolinas since the 1700s. Because of this, Hoppin’ John is generally thought to have originated somewhere along the Lowcountry coast.
Last, the superstition.
Why is there a dime hidden inside the peas before serving? For good luck of course! The dime is generally thought to bring wealth and riches to the one who is lucky enough to find it. Traditionally, hoppin’ john is served with collards, which are said to represent money, and cornbread, representing gold. All of these are served to help bring luck to the diners on New Year's day. Don’t forget the Skippin’ Jenny, the portion of leftover hoppin’ john eaten the next day, to double down on your luck!
The origin of the name of Hoppin’ John is a bit of a mystery. I haven’t found any conclusive research on this however, WhatsCookingAmerica.com has an interesting take that I found rather amusing:
“It was the custom for children to gather in the dining room as the dish was brought forth and hop around the table before sitting down to eat.
"A man named John came “a-hoppin” when his wife took the dish from the stove."
"An obscure South Carolina custom was inviting a guest to eat by saying, “Hop in, John”
"The dish goes back at least as far as 1841, when, according to tradition, it was hawked in the streets of Charleston, South Carolina by a crippled black man who was known as Hoppin’ John.”
Hoppin’ John is traditionally a one pot dish. If you read all the comments on various online recipes and even Southern Living’s top website recipe, they call for boiling peas and then adding to pre-cooked rice for a better flavor and consistency. I understand as a chef you have to be willing to learn and constantly adapt, but for the sake of tradition and the investigation into this historic dish I have kept my recipe a one-pot dish.
Before you start, make sure if using dry peas you have soaked them in water overnight or at least 8 hours
Heat butter in large stock pot. Place ham hock in butter and brown consistently on all sides.
Add diced yellow onion, bell pepper, and garlic to pot. Cook on medium heat until tender.
Add 7 cups of stock and 2 cups of field peas to the pot. Bring to a simmer and cover. Simmer for one hour on low heat. After one hour add seasonings and 2 cups of dry rice. Cover. Continue to simmer 25-30 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Fluff with fork and remove ham hock before serving.