Hoppin’ John

My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2015

It sounds more like a ‘50s dance craze than a family meal.

Or like some character out of a Dickens novel, the good-hearted but sketchy town drunk, he of pronounced limp and dandy cane.

Never mind that the primary characteristic of Hoppin’ John is also the name of a wildly popular band from the turn of the century. (This century, that is; not Dickens’.)

That “characteristic” — ingredient is the more accurate word here — is black-eyed peas. You might call them field peas.

(This is as good a time as any for a disclaimer: This is Southern cuisine we’re talking about here and there are no absolutes — I will not be receiving correspondence that takes issue with any information presented herein as factual. There is very little that is “factual” about Southern culture anyway; it’s all mythology and lore. That’s what makes us, as a region, so … interesting.)

But I digress. The dish called Hoppin’ John generally includes rice and some good Southern stuff like salt, onions and fatback with those black-eyed peas (which are often pickled for good measure).

For the winter holidays, the Hoppin’ John takes on properties loftier than simple nourishment of the body. This time of year, the dish will generally include greens of some kind, including cabbage, a food source of considerable prominence in Irish culture.

(Unless you have had a wayward cabbage shatter your car window or knock you senseless to the ground during a St. Patrick’s Day parade in New Orleans — each of which I have personally witnessed — there is no reason to doubt its auspicious properties.)

On New Years Day in particular, supper tables across the South are graced by some form of Hoppin’ John dish or at least black eyed peas and cabbage, not only to fortify the bones on a cold winter’s day, but to invite good luck and great fortune in the coming year for those who partake.

As with any indigenous superstition, there are dozens of interpretations and explanations for each element of the dish, but the generally held notion is that the peas are symbolic of pennies, or coins in general — and it’s true that sometimes a heaping of these delectable legumes can sometimes, almost, sort of resemble a pile of gold nuggets.

Sort of.

Many Hoppin’ John recipes, in fact, call for a real coin to be added to the pot during the meal’s preparation. The person who receives this token in their portion is said to receive extra luck — the first evidence of which is that the unsuspecting recipient of a coin hidden in their stew managed to escape choking to death.

(Any similarities to the tradition of inserting little plastic babies into king cakes during Mardi Gras season in New Orleans are not coincidental and are the sole provenance of the sublime nature of Southern superstitions.)

The greens that flesh out a dish of Hoppin’ John — be they cabbage, collards, mustard, turnip, chard, kale or some other (are there any other?) — are meant to symbolize, well, green — the color of paper currency. In America.

(I have no idea what the French add to their field peas on New Year’s Day for good luck. I mean, seriously?)

As if all of this is not enough to keep in mind, one who participates in a Hoppin’ John repast is also supposed to remember — upon finishing their meal — to leave three peas remaining on the plate to ensure luck, fortune and romance in the coming year, all of which seem to be piling up in considerable extremes during this one simple family meal.

I mean: How much luck does one man really need?

(All he can get.)

• • •

Funny thing I have noticed about Hoppin’ John, prior to researching this story, is how few people in New Orleans, my base of operation — as well as a community famously-well-versed in matters of food — seem to know what Hoppin’ John is.

I have lived in New Orleans for 30 years and have traveled extensively around the South, but I had never encountered the term Hoppin’ John until I began working at a French Quarter restaurant last winter. Chef Greg Sonnier at Kingfish offers a Hoppin’ John salad on the menu — a mound of leafy greens and two fried green tomatoes smothered with pickled black-eyed peas and topped off with a remoulade dressing.

And my experience since working there is that “Southerners” at-large generally know what it is, but many New Orleanians appear completely stumped. And diners from north of the Mason-Dixon generally ask: “Isn’t that the name of a dance?”

(OK, that I made up.)

This all furthers the conventional wisdom that New Orleans is not really “Southern” in anything but geography in the first place; its rhythm, aromas, general groove and sexual healing aligning more naturally with tropical latitudes.

Regardless, you really ought to try the Hoppin’ John salad at Kingfish some day.

You might even get lucky.

• • •

Now, about that name.

Like many other traditions whose lineage becomes untraceable the further back you go in history, the origin of the name Hoppin’ John remains in dispute.

(I mean it: Don’t call or email me with proof or evidence otherwise. I’m not answering.)

The earliest printed references to Hoppin’ John are traced to two 19th century cookbooks from the Carolina lowlands, “The Carolina Housewife” in 1847 and “Recollections of a Southern Matron” in 1838. What this tells us, primarily, is that they don’t title cookbooks like they used to anymore, huh?

One version of the name’s origin has it that an old hobbled man by the name of Hoppin’ John used to sell peas and rice on the streets of Charleston, S.C., and I’m not making this up. Google it if you don’t believe me.  And it’s a charming fable to be sure; it’s so, shall we say — Dickensian?

Now, I’m no licensed anthropologist, but I vote no to the old crippled guy. I mean, c’mon!

Then again, none of the other explanations I’ve come across quite satisfy either, but true foodies and historians seem to have settled on a consensus etymology that nicely parallels with that of the brand of Louisiana dance music called zydeco.

That story, familiar to many South Louisianans, has it that one of the earliest songs from the musical canon created by the accordion-playing black Creoles of Cajun Country carried the lyrics, “les haricots sont pas salés,” translated: The snap peas have no salt.

That first phrase, “les haricots,” repeated over and over in Anglicized form, takes the sound of “zydeco.” Sort of.

(Look, this folklore business takes a degree of suspending your disbelief. These names had to have come from somewhere, right?)

Similarly, then, we have Hoppin’ John emanating from the Haitian Creole term for dried peas “pois pigeons.” As with “les haricots,” if you say it long enough and fast enough, it just might — I said just might — sound like Hoppin’ John.

Then again, why do we always have to spoil a good meal by trying to figure out where its name came from? And what’s with all this stuff being named after beans?

Conventional theories notwithstanding, none of this explains why, on the day after New Years, the leftover portions of a Hoppin’ John are called Skippin’ Jenny. And I am not making this up. I promise.

And if you want to read more than you ever wanted to know about that dish, then tune into these same pages, this same time next year, and we’ll spill the beans on the story of Skippin’ Jenny. The dance craze that swept the American South off its feet.