Perhaps more interesting than the dish itself -- a classic Southern combination of black-eyed peas, salt pork, and rice -- are the many (outlandish) stories about the derivation of its name. Was it named after a lively waiter named John? For a cripple who pedaled beans on the streets of Charleston? For a custom in which children hopped around the dinner table on New Year’s before they were allowed to dig in? Hoppin’ John is traditionally eaten -- with collard greens and chitterlings -- on New Year’s Day for luck. Is it a corruption of the Caribbean dish pois à pigeon? Or was it a way that guests were invited to partake, as in "Hop in, John"? The origins of the dish itself are equally mysterious. Some cookbooks attribute it to Spain, others to Africa, still others to the Caribbean. One thing we know for a fact—it tastes good.The first citation for the name, according to Food Timeline History Notes is in 1830.
The traditional wisdom is that the black-eyed peas (also called cowpeas) are for luck and/or health while the collard greens (usually served on the side, but my recipe cooks them together) are for wealth. But that can vary from tradition to tradition, as Eden Foods notes in this article about New Year's food traditions.
Growing up, I don't remember us ever really having hoppin' john as a child, at least not by that name. Instead, we would have black-eyed peas and cabbage. I don't know if it was because of my and my brother's food preferences or because of what my mother wanted to cook, but the cabbage was usually in the form of coleslaw, while the black-eyed peas were served stewed over rice.
Over the years, I've tried a lot of variations on New Year's black-eyed pea recipes, ranging from a doctored up jambalaya au congri that used white, brown, and wild rice (it also made a huge quantity) to different black-eyed pea stews to multiple hoppin' john recipes. Last Christmas, my parents gave Evelin and me a copy of Quick from Scratch Vegetable Main Dishes (part of the Food & Wine Books series), which includes a simple hoppin' john recipe that Evelin and I both like a lot after a few modifications/personalizations:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 4 scallions, chopped, green tops reserved
- 1 toe garlic, minced
- 1/2 pound collard greens, destemed, cleaned, and shredded
- 1.75 teaspoons salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, fresh ground
- a few dashes Tabasco
- 4 Boca Bratwursts, defrosted, sliced in half and then cut into 1-inch slices*
- an 11-ounce package of fresh black-eyed peas
- 1 cup long-grain rice
- 3 cups vegetable stock (I used Knorr Vegetarian Vegetable Bouillon cubes)
Increase the heat to moderately high and add the sausage, peas, and rice and stir together well. Pour in the broth and stir some more. Bring to a simmer, and then cover the pan and reduce heat to low. Cook for about 20 minutes, until all liquid is absorbed. I tend to give it a few stirs during the first 10 minutes or so to make sure the rice isn't sticking to the bottom. Remove from heat, stir in the reserved greens of the scallions and serve with cornbread.
*The original recipe calls for a half pound of "kiełbasa or other smoked sausage." Since I'm vegetarian and I like the Boca Bratwursts, that's what I use; I could have picked up Boca Smoked instead. Boca's vegetarian sausages are really quite good and they work well as a substitute for meat sausages in recipes so long as the dish isn't counting on fat from the sausage to create drippings or anything. What would really be cool, however, is if Boca would make a vegetarian andouille.