These cans are set out on the table where I’ll eat my New Year’s breakfast. That’s so I won’t forget: opening them is for later in the day.
I’ve become seriously superstitious about the tradition of eating this concoction on this day, because many in these parts consider it a harbinger of good luck and prosperity for the coming year.
I’m not sure I can say I “believe” this Hoppin’ John legend. But whatever, I’ve been careful to make this dish on the past several January Firsts — and I’m still here to write about it, so I figure it doesn’t hurt. Besides, if there’s any year I expect to need some more good luck, it’s surely for the one that follows 2020. (That plus a vaccine shot or two; which is not in the cards for me yet.)
Where did this odd New Year’s notion come from? The short answer seems to be, nobody knows. Hence, various versions have grown and spread.
For instance, Wikipedia:
In the southern United States, eating Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day is thought to bring a prosperous year filled with luck. The peas are symbolic of pennies or coins, and a coin is sometimes added to the pot or left under the dinner bowls. Collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, chard, kale, cabbage and similar leafy green vegetables served along with this dish are supposed to further add to the wealth, since they are the color of American currency. [Note: None of that infernal hipster/poseur leaf, that Russian-Canadian invader, called “kale,” will find its way into my kitchen as long as I’m able to defend it. But as they were saying:]
Another traditional food, cornbread, can also be served to represent wealth, being the color of gold. On the day after New Year’s Day, leftover “Hoppin’ John” is called “Skippin’ Jenny” and further demonstrates one’s frugality, bringing a hope for an even better chance of prosperity in the New Year.
A1935 Illinois newspaper was quoted as disclosing that “Mrs. Roosevelt served Hopping John at the White House not long ago and everybody in the country started buying blackeyed peas….They save money, they add proteins to the diet and above all, savorily [sic] seasoned, they make the best kind of eating.” And Laura Bush served as a good luck meal during her time there.
A more skeptical take on the (essentially undocumented) history of the dish & the custom came in the Washington Post in December 2011:
“The good-luck tradition tied to black-eyed peas is a curious one, given the bean’s history. Like the people who first loved the legume, black-eyed peas were a product of the slave trade. The men and women of West Africa, who were dragged involuntarily to the United States, were sought for their knowledge of rice cultivation. . . .
And those West Africans, the literature so often notes, brought their food with them — except they didn’t, as food writer John Thorne so eloquently points out in his now-classic essay on hoppin’ John in the “Serious Pig” collection (North Point Press, 1996):
“The only thing Africans brought with them was their memories. If they were fortunate enough to have been taken along with other members of their own community and to stay with them (which rarely happened) — there was also the possibility of reestablishing out of these memories some truncated resemblance of former rituals and customs.”
It was in all likelihood the slave traders who started to import black-eyed peas to the United States as some sort of backhanded charitable act to appease their unhappy charges during the long and often deadly journeys across the Atlantic. In the American South, with both rice and black-eyed peas available, the natives of West Africa could prepare a dish that reminded them of home: a humble combination of rice and beans that eventually became known as Hoppin’ John.
Much has been written about the origin of the name. Most of the theories, as Taylor wrote in a recent essay about the dish for Gastronomica, are merely “fakelore,” because “they are based on neither fact nor historical record.”
One such theory supposes the dish earned its name from children hopping around the table before they could eat their beans and rice. (Please.) Another describes a hobbled man by the name of Hoppin’ John who sold the dish on the streets of Charleston, S.C.
Thorne believes the name is a corruption of the French term for pigeon peas, “pois a pigeon,” while the late food historian Karen Hess thought the name derived from “the old Persian bahatta kachang, meaning cooked rice and beans,” Taylor wrote in his essay.
If writers and scholars disagree on the origin of the name, at least they have something to argue about. There are virtually no established theories about how hoppin’ John came to symbolize good luck, or how eating it would provide good luck for the coming year. Some point to the notion that the peas resemble coins, which would be true if our pocket change looked like jellybeans. Others note that hoppin’ John typically is served with braised collard greens, which popularly symbolize paper money.
Taylor suggests that the tradition might (emphasis on “might”) have started during that fallow period between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when slaves were given time off. The harvest season was essentially over, the planting season yet to come. It was a good time to give thanks for past crops, Taylor says, and raise expectations for the coming season. Such a ritual could have developed into a good-luck tradition, with the slaves’ favorite dish of hoppin’ John as the centerpiece.
Then again, as Taylor notes, “a historian of belief systems, superstitions and traditions I’m not.”
The historian stands on firmer ground when discussing what, to me, is the most fascinating part of the hoppin’ John story: the dish’s migration from slave table to slave owner table. Taylor believes it was a natural evolution, given that slaves often served as cooks to the plantation owners. “These wealthy families, they weren’t eating the grand food” every night, the historian says. “They would have been eating hoppin’ John and corn pone and grains.”
Hoppin’ John has that ability to worm its way into your life, even if it wasn’t part of your family’s tradition. Perhaps the combination of rice and beans is so universal, so nutritious and so satisfying that, on some level, the human body just craves it.
In one form or another, rice and beans can be found on tables from Africa and India . . . to the Caribbean and the American South.”
That’s right. It has even become an annual fixture in my Yankee immigrant kitchen. I usually skip the rice, but make the cornbread from scratch.
So thanks and honor to those who endured the slave centuries, and managed to wring from them many better things, of which Hoppin’ John is one. Happy new year, bon appétit, and good luck.