Even though I love it, it’s not a dish I make and eat every single New Year’s Day. But probably more often than not there’s a pot of hoppin’ John on my stove the first day of the year. Said to be a step in the direction of starting your year off right, there are many theories as to the origin of both the name and the good luck tradition. I’ll share my favorite of each and leave further research for you if you’re so inclined.
For the nonsensical name I’ll cite my favorite book of food essays, Serious Pig, by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne. The authors list several possibilities and the one which rings truest is a reference to a relative of the black eyed pea, the pigeon pea:
…”hoppin’ John” is a corruption of pois à pigeon (especially if the à is elided in the Creole manner to make pois pigeon [pwaah-peejon]).
So fun to say! “Pwaah-peejon.” And, to my ear, so easy to hear “hoppin’ John.” “Pwaah-peejon.”
Next: why is hoppin’ John thought to be a fortuitous New Year’s Day dish? Well…I don’t know how it came to be associated with New Year’s (and I’m not looking it up again, I’ve already barely made it back from two related deep dives). As to the dish’s overall consideration of being lucky, I have a little more. It begins with the borderline arbitrary symbolism of peas as coins (really?) and collard greens representing dollar dollar bills, y’all. But the explanation I prefer has almost as much to do with how it came to me as the explanation itself.
Enter Coy LeBeau
One beautiful sunny day in Key West, after waiting tables at lunch I was in a dark bar drinking whiskey with friend, coworker, and chef Coy LeBeau. Coy and I shared a deep love for New Orleans (Coy was born in Baton Rouge; I visited NOLA often and even lived there for a minute), and we also were passionate about food, about the same kinds of music, and about drink of almost any type.
Coy and I were natural after work drinking buddies.
On this particular day he was teaching a class about Hank Williams, my tuition for which was five dollars, remitted to the jukebox. As an unrelated bonus (a lagniappe, perhaps?) Coy related to me, in his Louisiana drawl, how the black eyed pea came to be regarded as lucky: when General Sherman was conducting “total war” during his march to Atlanta, the only agricultural survivors of the Union army’s scorched earth policy were the low-to-the-ground sprouts of field peas.
Sounds good to me, and is way more interesting than coins and folding money. Thank you Coy LeBeau.
Since it’s a dish I make on average less than once a year, I won’t pretend to have the definitive recipe. In fact, I won’t even pretend to have a recipe. And unlike the directions for a few recipes I’ve read recently (including this one, which has some insights I like), I don’t think I’ve ever cooked the rice in with the beans.
Below is my off-the-cuff preparation for hoppin’ John. If you happen to be reading this and are wondering why I didn’t give any pre-New Year’s Day advance notice, it’s because we gave away black eyed peas at our New Year’s Eve pop-up cafe and I didn’t want to put this dish even remotely on any of our guests’ radar, i.e. I wanted it to be a total surprise. Because I’m sure they (and thousands of others) refresh their browsers obsessively – like Jesse Eisenberg in the closing scene of Social Network – to see if there are any new posts on this website.
Here’s how I would cook hoppin’ John
Pick through your beans and make sure there’s no detritus (usually in the form of small stones). If you’re in possession of beans from our New Year’s Eve pop-up, Katy has already picked through your beans (and discarded the dozen or so stones she found – thank you!).
Soak your black eyed peas overnight.
In a quality saucepan, pot, or dutch oven, render the fat from one strip of bacon (or skip this and just use a little olive oil). Remove the bacon and eat it (or chop up and reserve to sprinkle on top of finished dish). In the bacon fat saute a small diced onion until soft and translucent.
Drain and rinse the beans and add to the onion in the pot. Add water until it covers the beans by an inch or two. Add two large pinches of salt. (I salt my beans as early as possible. Controversial, given that most chefs call for salting beans when they’re finished cooking. I dimly recall a Cook’s Illustrated recipe in which the beans are soaked in salted water. My instinct says the earlier you can add salt to something, the better.) Add a sprig of thyme, or a bay leaf, or both. Maybe a pinch of dried red pepper flakes.
Gently simmer the beans until they’re soft but not mushy. If the pot appears to be getting dry, add a little more water, the entire mixture should always be on the coherent side.
Serve over rice with cooked collard greens on top or separately, Crystal hot sauce (or Tobasco) on the side.
One pot variation #1
The one variation I’ll mention here is that when the beans are still pretty firm and have about a half hour to go, I might stir raw chopped collard greens into the simmering mixture instead of cooking them separately.
One pot variation #2
Because I’m interested in cleaning as few pots as possible – especially if the results are actually better – I’m interested in cooking the rice along with the beans, I’ve just never done it before. According to Serious Pig I would need to eyeball that there’s about 2 1/2 cups of water remaining for one cup of raw rice, then cook it all together for about 20 minutes more. They add the rice after the beans are done (soft but not mushy). This seems a little late to me (the beans would be overcooked by the end) but as I’ve said, I’ve not tried it.
Cooking is not an exact science. Have fun with your hoppin’ John, and Happy New Year!