Happy New Year! In her later years, my Grandmother always had black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. This is a common tradition in the Southern US that’s supposed to bring good luck in the coming year. She was born and raised in Virginia and relocated to southern New Jersey in the late 1950’s after my grandfather was transferred by his job. Both of their families remained in Virginia, so their southern ties and roots stayed strong. Much of that heritage was passed on to my mother, and even to me (I know better than to pronounce “pecan” pea-can. It’s pah-khan. No question.), but we never got into the black eyed peas on New Year’s. My mom says that she doesn’t remember my grandmother doing beans for New Year’s while she was growing up, and my mom doesn’t cook with beans much, some kidneys in chili, baked beans with hot dogs, and occasionally some refried beans if we were having Mexican.
I saw that National Bean Day was coming up, and I thought that I would make up a bean dish for New Year’s to feature today. Since the lore is that black eyed peas are the bearers of good luck on New Year’s Day, I started looking for a traditional recipe featuring them. I settled on Hoppin’ John, most known for being a Civil War era dish of bacon, rice and black eyed peas. It is unknown why it’s called Hoppin’ John, or how it came to be. The first known reference is from 1838. Like a lot of dishes of a fairly new country, I’m guessing it was influenced by immigrants, slaves, and goods being traded in the ports. A lot of different cultures, Creole and Africa for example, have dishes of rice and beans, so each probably brought their own version and it became “Americanized.” These days if you go searching for recipes online, you can find all kinds of gussied up Hoppin’ John recipes using lots of different meats, vegetables, and spices. Without these additions, Hoppin’ John has a reputation for being bland and mushy – which leads to the question, how did such a dish become such a staple of American Southern cuisine?
I found this interesting article by Robert Moss. In it, he argues that the once-popular dish lost all it’s flavor due to our food processes changing. He provides lots of really great insight, including places that are trying to restore those old methods and bring back some of the flavors we’ve lost along the way. Sadly, I couldn’t invest in acquiring these ingredients, so I did the best I could:
- Rice: Moss says that Hoppin’ John was originally made with a variety of rice known as Carolina Gold. He describes it as “a non-aromatic long-grained variety prized for its lush and delicate flavor.” The closest I had was a basmati rice. It is a long grain with a light flavor, but not as aromatic as jasmine.
- Beans: Moss also has found that the beans that were originally used were not the variety we know of today, but a variety known as red cowpeas, or red black eyed peas. I knew I would have no luck in finding these, and so far I’ve not had good luck with working with dried beans. So I used a can of regular black eyed peas. Sorry Robert.
- Bacon: The bacon that would have been used would not only have come from a different variety of pig, but it was processed totally different, leaving out the days of smoking. I found an uncured smoky bacon in my local grocery store. Would have to do.
The original method of making Hoppin’ John called for cooking everything all in the same pot – which if you’re not used to steaming rice this way and using pre-cooked canned beans can most certainly lead to mush. I slowly added each ingredient to the pot to layer the flavors without overcooking.
- I got out my cast iron skillet and crisped up some bacon. After it was done, I blotted it with some paper towels, then chopped into bite-sized pieces.
- In my dutch oven I brought some turkey broth to boil. I used turkey because that’s what I had. Really any broth would work, and I decided this was an acceptable step since some old recipes called for soaking the beans in broth. I tossed in the bacon and let it boil a minute to start to break down the bacon and release its flavor.
- Then I put in the rice. I gave it a stir to make sure all the grains were coated and not sticking to the bottom of the dutchie. I brought it back up to a boil.
- As soon as it was boiling, I put in the can of undrained beans. I figured this would add more beany flavor to the dish. I turned the burner down so the liquid would just simmer and put the lid on to steam.
- Once all the liquid was absorbed, I gave it a stir. Fluffy, individual grains of rice and soft beans. No mush. I did stir in a dash of salt, and was done.
I decided to go full southern with dinner that night, so I also sauteed up some collards in the leftover bacon grease with onions and garlic, and roasted a pork loin with a dijon mustard coating. I think this was an acceptable version of authentic Hoppin’ John. Maybe next year I’ll invest in some of those heirloom ingredients and see how big of a difference it makes…