Don't mess with Hoppin’ John
A bit of advice: A while back I tried substituting soy veggie bacon. It turned out to be a less than stellar year for me. Stick with the real thing - at least for the one day. You can't fool Mom, Mother Nature or Hoppin' John. (GW)
AT year’s end, people around the world indulge in food rituals to ensure good luck in the days ahead. In Spain, grapes eaten as the clock turns midnight — one for each chime — foretell whether the year will be sweet or sour. In Austria, the New Year’s table is decorated with marzipan pigs to celebrate wealth, progress and prosperity. Germans savor carp and place a few fish scales in their wallets for luck. And for African-Americans and in the Southern United States, it’s all about black-eyed peas.
Not surprisingly, this American tradition originated elsewhere, in this case in the forests and savannahs of West Africa. After being domesticated there 5,000 years ago, black-eyed peas made their way into the diets of people in virtually all parts of that continent. They then traveled to the Americas in the holds of slave ships as food for the enslaved. “Everywhere African slaves arrived in substantial numbers, cowpeas followed,” wrote one historian, using one of several names the legume acquired. Today the peas are also eaten in Brazil, Central America and the Caribbean.
In the United States, few foods are more connected with African-Americans and with the South. Before the early 1700s, black-eyed peas were observed growing in the Carolina colonies. As in Africa, they were often planted at the borders of the fields to help keep down weeds and enrich the soil; cattle grazed on the stems and vines. These practices are at the origin of two of the peas’ alternative names: cowpeas and field peas. The peas, which were eaten by enslaved Africans and poorer whites, became one of the Carolinas’ cash crops, exported to the Caribbean colonies before the Revolutionary War.
Like many other dishes of African inspiration, black-eyed peas made their way from the slave cabin to the master’s table; the 1824 edition of “The Virginia Housewife” by Mary Randolph includes a recipe for field peas. Randolph suggests shelling, boiling and draining the “young and newly gathered” peas, then mashing them into a cake and frying until lightly browned. The black-eyed pea cakes are served with a garnish of “thin bits of fried bacon.”
Of course, black-eyed peas find their most prominent expression around New Year’s in the holiday’s signature dish: Hoppin’ John, a Carolina specialty made with black-eyed peas and rice and seasoned with smoked pork. Again, though, the peas and rice combination reaches back beyond the Lowcountry to West Africa, where variants are eaten to this day. Senegal alone has three variations: thiebou kethiah, a black-eyed pea and rice stew with eggplant, pumpkin, okra and smoked fish; sinan kussak, a stew with smoked fish and prepared with red palm oil; and thiebou niebe, a stew seasoned with fish sauce that is closest to America’s Hoppin’ John.
Just as nobody is sure of the origin of the name Hoppin’ John, no one seems quite certain why the dish has become associated with luck, or New Year’s. Some white Southerners claim that black-eyed peas saved families from starvation during the Union Army’s siege of Vicksburg in the Civil War. “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” suggests that it may come from Sephardic Jews, who included the peas in their Rosh Hashana menu as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.
For African-Americans, the connection between beans and fortune is surely complex. Perhaps, because dried black-eyed peas can be germinated, having some extra on hand at the New Year guaranteed sustenance provided by a new crop of the fast-growing vines. The black-eyed pea and rice combination also forms a complete protein, offering all of the essential amino acids. During slavery, one ensured of such nourishment was lucky indeed.
Whatever the exact reason, black-eyed peas with rice form one corner of the African-American New Year’s culinary trinity: greens, beans and pig. The greens symbolize greenbacks (or “folding money”) and may be collards, mustards or even cabbage. The pork is a remembrance of our enslaved forebears, who were given the less noble parts of the pig as food. But without the black-eyed pea, which journeyed from Africa to the New World, it just isn’t New Year’s — at least not a lucky one.