Hoppin' John

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black eyed-peas and coins

Last year, a friend of mine mentioned he always serves Hoppin' John at his annual New Year's Day party. As an Orange County-raised son of non-Southern parents, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Hoppin' John?

Once he finished rolling his eyes at me, he explained that eating black-eyed peas (the primary ingredient of Hoppin' John) was considered lucky if eaten on New Year's Day. The act of eating them is supposed to ensure prosperity, since it was believed that, when cooked, these little legumes resemble coins. Apparently, collard greens are supposed to look like folded dollar bills, too. Southern people seem to have very active imaginations, which is probably why I have such a strong affection for them. I chalk it up to their near-starved state during the Civil War. Union soliders, in an effort to starve out the Confederates and make life generally unpleasant, took whatever food stuffs they could find for themselves, leaving crops like corn and black-eyed peas untouched because, at the time, they were considered pig fodder and, therefore, unfit for human consumption. Black-eyed peas are a symbol of resourcefulness, of survival.

My friend never did know where the name Hoppin' John came from. No one is in agreement as to the etymology of the dish. Some say it comes from a children's game, wherein the little tykes hop around the dinner table chanting and rhyming. Other's say it comes from a one-legged slave who created it. Other sources are suggested, but does it really matter? The dish is here and, hopefully, here to stay. We need all the luck we can find. If it can be found in a little cowpea from North Africa, then so be it. I'm willing to give it a try. It certainly cant hurt, unless I eat a large quantity of them uncooked.

I missed last year's New Year's Day party and the Hoppin' John. I ate Popeye's Fried Chicken instead. Not surprisingly, my year was not what I would consider remotely prosperous. This year I'm hedging my bets. I suggest you do, too.


Happy New Year.

Recipe: Hoppin' John

There are countless variations of this recipe (I even found a recipe for Hip Hoppin' John), but the basics remain the same-- black-eyed peas, some sort of smoked pig product, onion and water. Everything else that might be included seems to be a matter of either taste, region or whatever one might think is lucky. Throw in a diced rabbit's foot or a horseshoe-- I doubt anyone would notice. Here's my version:

Serves: 6 to 8

1 pound dried black-eyed peas
1/4 pound thick slab bacon, diced into 1/4 inch cubes
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 stalk of celery, finely diced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
about 10 shakes from a Tabasco Sauce bottle
roughly the same amount of shakes from a bottle of rice wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large Dutch Oven, fry up bacon until browned.
2. Turn heat down to a lowish flame. Add celery, onion, garlic and red pepper flakes.
Cook until translucent (about two minutes).
3. Add beans and cover with water.
4. Add bay leaf, thyme and salt.
5. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for about one hour or until al dente-- longer if you want them mushy as some people might insist upon.
6. When done. Add tabasco, vinegar and pepper. Adjust salt, if necessary.

Serve over rice. Throw in a side of greens for extra luck. Sit passively and wait the Publisher's Clearing House representative to arrive in his van with a bouquet of ballons and a gigantic check.