The History of Hoppin’ John

A Southern dish of black-eyed peas and rice historically eaten on New Year’s Day for good luck, the first written “receipt” for Hoppin’ John appeared in “The Carolina Housewife” (1847), written by Charlestonian Sarah Rutledge. The simple recipe called for one pound of bacon, one pint of peas and one pint of rice cooked in a single pot.

The African roots of the dish can be traced to the antebellum rice culture of the South Carolina Lowcountry, where peas and rice have been cooked together for centuries. Tradition dictates that a side of collard greens representing paper money be served with Hoppin’ John to ensure prosperity in the coming year. Several sources also suggest a penny or dime should be placed under the plate or in the dish itself for additional wealth.

While most experts agree on the history of Hoppin’ John, they often disagree on the cooking method and even the ingredients.

Daufuskie Island native, tour guide, historian, chef and Gullah Diva Sallie Ann Robinson, author of “Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way” and  “Cooking the Gullah Way, Morning, Noon and Night,” dispels several myths regarding the recipe.

“I know you’ve got a lot of Northerners who make it with black-eyed peas. That is NOT a Southern tradition,” she said. “The traditional Southern peas for Hoppin’ John is red peas. You can quote me on that! Red peas. Some people call them cow peas; some people call them red peas or field peas. Traditionally, you would have to pick your peas.”

“Let me tell you the meat that was used,” Sallie Ann continued. “Some people used one or other and some people used a little of all. When I cook mine, I use a variety because it adds the true flavor. I use some ham hocks, some smoked neck bones and some pig tails. Some people put pig’s feet in it, but it varies. Some use fatback, hog maw—some people have even cooked it with chitlins. But those are true, traditional Carolina meats that they use in the dish.”

Sallie Ann’s recipe for Hoppin’ John is included in her third cookbook, but she carefully explained the traditional Daufuskie Island way to prepare this side dish, which was served immediately following New Year’s Eve Watch Night Services.

Hoppin’ John 

Recipe courtesy of Sallie Ann Robinson

I don’t wait until New Year’s to cook Hoppin’ John, but a lot of people will wait. I love it to the point, where I say, “Who promised me tomorrow?”

Ingredients:

  • Red Peas, Cow Peas or Field Peas
  • Ham Hocks, Smoked Neck Bones, Pig Tails, Pig’s Feet, Fatback, Hog Maw and/or Chitlins
  • White Rice

Method:

  • Because the smoked meat is salted, what you have to do first is put whatever you are using in a pot to boil for about 30 minutes. What it does is draw off a lot of the salt that the meat holds. Then you pour it off.
  • Then, you add more water, about halfway, and cook it some more for about another 30 minutes.
  • Then, you add your peas. If you buy a package of peas and add water to it, you see a bunch of them float to the top. You have to pour that off—not all of it, but most of it. Cook the peas with the meat until the peas are done. By that time, the meat will be nice and tender as well, especially ham hock because ham hock takes a while to get tender.
  • Once the peas are tender and seasoned—you have to add your salt and pepper to make sure it tastes good—then you wash your rice. You don’t just take your rice and pour it in there. Rinse your rice off twice. And then add the amount that would measure up to the peas to it.
  • Stir it and turn the pot down from high to medium because at this point, as that rice swells, it will also stick. So, you have to make sure that you stir it on occasion, so it doesn’t stick to the bottom.
  • Another way, the newer way, is instead of cooking it on top of the stove, once you add your rice and mix your peas in it, you can pour it into an aluminum half pan, cover it with foil, stick it in the oven and bake it for about 45 minutes. It cooks it really dry and you have to stir it on occasion, as well, because rice has to be stirred to cook even when you’re cooking it with the meat.
  • Come back and stir it, even it off and put the foil back on it and let it cook for another 30-45 minutes, until your rice is done.
  • Now, let me tell you this part. The meat you put in it makes it very flavorful. It’s really a nice texture. It’s not dry; it’s very flavorful.

To learn more about Sallie Ann Robinson and her cookbooks, sign up for cooking classes or inquire about catering, visit thegullahdiva.com. To make reservations for Sallie Ann’s Native Gullah Tour, contact Tour Daufuskie at (843) 842-9449 or visit tourdaufuskie.com.