Hoppin’ John – A Southern New Year’s Tradition

Ahh, the prospect of a New Year. A clean slate. A do-over. It’s the time to re-set our hopes, dreams and goals and proclaim that this year will be decidedly different and better than the last.

But first, we eat! Like most cultures, we may start off a new year with food traditions rich in symbolism. In Japan, people slurp long, buckwheat noodles that represent longevity. The Dutch, and many Eastern Europeans, will eat rings of sweet dough or a glazed pretzel. In Spain and a handful of other Spanish-speaking countries around the world, the stroke of midnight is welcomed by eating 12 green grapes.

Glassy-eyed, from celebratory toasts and ball drops, and after a lazy day of parades and football, we’ll likely sit down to that first meal of a brand new year. For many of us that meal will include some kind of special food, given that “melting pot” history of ours. In my family, we always enjoyed a “New Year’s Pretzel,” in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.

Southerners might ring in the New Year with a helping of black-eyed peas, or a more flavorful dish known as “Hoppin’ John.” It’s a dish that typically combines black-eyed peas, pork, greens and rice. “Beyond its muddy etymology and silly superstitions, it’s a great representation of the melting pot tradition of Southern cooking — mixing West African roots with New World ingredients and colonial simplicity,” says Nolan Konkoski, owner of Cleveland’s SoHo Kitchen + Whiskey. “We’ve included it in some form on our New Year’s Eve menu for the past five years.”

Nolan opts to use red cowpeas (also called Sea Island red peas)—an homage to the 17th century origins of the dish. These are harder to find locally but you can buy them online from Anson Mills. He also swears by Carolina Gold, quite literally the American gold standard of rice. It’s a chewy and fragrant heirloom rice variety with a little more fluff and mouthfeel than we’re used to.

“Like many humble dishes, the quality of the ingredients makes all the difference. I strongly prefer red cowpeas.” The meatiness of the cowpeas and rich, buttery quality of the gold rice helps elevate the Hoppin’ John without having to overcompensate with loads of smoked meat. We always include some country ham and andouille in the simmer.”

A colorful array of ingredients, with many items found in a typical pantry, will simmer on the stove for about 90 minutes. Served atop a bed of fluffy Carolina Gold rice, it’s got a distinctly Southern, Lowcountry feel to it. You can spice it up with hot sauce, and some spicier sausage. You can serve it with some juicy vinegar greens and cornbread. You could turn it into brunch with the addition of a soft boiled or poached egg.

Nolan serves his version of Hoppin John at SoHo for their seated New Years Eve dinner. “We plate it as part of our fourth course, with smoked, roasted chicken and cress, tomato broth and aged gouda.”

I had never had a black eyed pea (nor heard of a cowpea), and I had not tried this particular dish. I figured heading to the one truly Southern-inspired restaurant in the city made perfect sense. It’s delicious!  Nolan convinced me that the red cowpeas are a better option, and historically speaking, they belong in the dish. The black eyed peas we access today don’t hold up to the boil quite as well. The familiar smoky flavors, the chunks of ham and sausage, and chewy beans and rice make this a great cold weather dish to feed a crowd.

Maybe your own New Year’s resolution involves branching into new culinary territory. It doesn’t always have to be about fancy or expensive food. Diving into its origins, even something as basic as peas and rice, can be enlightening and delicious.

Try a simple traditional black eyed pea recipe, or another black eyed pea appetizer known as “Texas Caviar” and make a little of your own luck in 2017. Or, better yet, make a trip to SoHo, and taste some of the most authentic Southern cooking here on the North Coast.

Lisa Sands