A plain dish with a rich history to greet 2011


Some people focus on their New Year’s resolutions in the last days of the waning year. I stick with old superstitions. In our family this means making sure the first meal of the New Year is Hoppin’ John — a traditional rice and bean dish — with a side of cooked greens and a platter of corn bread. Whether I down a bowl at midnight with a glass of champagne or wait until breakfast, I start the fresh year with this traditional goodness for good luck.

Variations of Hoppin’ John abound across the southern United States and throughout the Caribbean. The basic ingredients are long-grain rice, black-eyed peas or field peas, onion, bacon, and salt. Hoppin’ John is simple, stick-to-the-ribs food. No one really knows where the name comes from but food historians agree the dish is an American version of West African rice and beans. The black-eyed peas, essential to the dish, were brought by slaves to the rice fields of Georgia in the 1600s.

My ex-brother-in-law, a native Georgian, introduced me to the dish and the tradition in Bluffton, South Carolina, in the late 1960s. First he taught me the saying, “Eat poor on New Year’s Day, eat rich the rest of the year. Rice for riches and peas for peace”

I’ve since heard that the peas stand for pennies, and the side dishes that usually accompany Hoppin’ John also have associations with money: the collards or other greens symbolizing paper money, and the cornbread gold.

To stretch good fortune even further, some cooks throw a shiny dime into the cooking pot. Whoever gets the dime is supposed to have extra good luck. The most superstitious also eat leftover beans and rice on January 2. This is called “Skippin’ Jenny.” By demonstrating even greater frugality, apparently, one will receive even greater future abundance. We never have enough Hoppin’ John left over to try this.

Recipes for Hoppin’ John are flexible and personal. The rice and beans can be cooked together or separately, for example. I have tried a version substituting kielbasa for the bacon, giving a nod to the Portuguese tradition on the Island, but I prefer to use bacon or a ham hock or Canadian bacon if I am being more health-conscious.

In the Bahamas and Jamaica it is typical to substitute pigeon peas for the black-eyed peas and to add coconut milk. This is my favorite method:

Hoppin’ John (Caribbean style)

1 medium onion, chopped

2 tsps olive oil

2 cloves garlic minced

2 cups long-grain rice (preferably converted, Uncle Ben’s)

1 14-ounce can coconut milk

1 14-ounce can black-eyed peas, drained

5 slices of Canadian bacon, diced

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 tsp dried thyme

Salt, pepper

1 whole jalapeno pepper (optional)

Scallions and /or cilantro, chopped, for garnish.

In a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, sauté onion in oil until softened.

Add garlic and continue cooking another minute or so until the garlic is fragrant but not browned.

Add the rice and stir until well mixed.

Add stock, coconut milk, beans, thyme, Canadian bacon, and whole pepper (optional). Bring to simmer.

Cover. Reduce heat and simmer slowly for 20 or 25 minutes, until the rice is done.

Season with salt and pepper.

Serve with a side of hot wilted greensand a pan of hot cornbread.

However you make Hoppin’ John and whatever you serve with it, be sure to leave three peas on your plate. This is to assure your New Year will be filled with luck, fortune, and romance.

Happy New Year! May it be a lucky one.