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Ancestral Cooking Forum

Hopping John for Luck in New Year?

Black-eyed peas are traditionally served on New Year's Day.

Could you use a little luck? Then hop on over to the grocery store before it closes for the holiday, and get yourself a package of black-eyed peas. You won't be able to make a lucky dish of hoppin' John without them.

Traditionally eaten down south, particularly in the Carolinas, on New Years' Day to ensure good fortune in the months ahead, hoppin' John is a variation of the rice-and-bean dishes made throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Its peculiar name may be a corruption of pois pigeons, the French Creole term for the essential ingredient.

"I always looked forward to it, going home for the holidays. My grandparents made it," said Hilton Reynolds, a native of North Carolina and head cook at Je's in Newark, where a side dish of black-eyed peas seasoned with onion and cooked in chicken stock often accompanies the fried catfish and chicken.

Customarily flavored with ham hock, salt pork or bacon, hoppin' John may be embellished in health-conscious kitchens with smoked turkey instead. Technically neither peas nor beans, its legumes are sold fresh in the southern states. Here up north, it's easiest to find black-eyed peas in frozen, canned or dried form. Frozen ones work well when time is tight, said Reynolds, but he prefers the depth of flavor that comes from the dried. Lucky for the cook, professional or not, black-eyed peas require less soaking than most dried beans--about an hour, said Reynolds. And preparing them is no strain, either. "The smell alone will let you know when they're ready. They have a nice aroma to them," he said.

Like many dishes based on humble ingredients, hoppin' John was born of hard times. Native to Africa, black-eyed peas -- properly called Southern peas or cowpeas -- were brought to the Americas with the slave trade in the late 17th century. (They get their common name from the distinctive black spot at their hilum, or inner curve.) In his 19th-century travelogue, "A Journey to the Seaboard Slave States," the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park and Essex County's Brookdale Park, wrote of the people he observed, "Their chief sustenance is a porridge of cow-peas, and the greatest luxury with which they are acquainted is a stew of bacon and peas, with red pepper, which they call 'Hopping John.'"


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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