Southern Cuisine History: Hoppin’ John

The New Year is here and it is time for sticking to resolutions and a big helping of Southern tradition.  Hoppin’ John is a dish consisting of rice and black-eyed peas and often served with collard greens.  It is said to bring luck and prosperity in the New Year to those who eat it.  Although hoppin’ John, as we know it today, is a traditional Southern New Year’s meal, it has a rich and diverse history and many potential influences.  Around 500 AD, the Talmud listed black-eyed peas as a dish to serve during Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year, as a symbol of good luck.  In the mid-1700s many Jews came to the United States and settled in Georgia and around the time of the Civil War the practice of eating black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s Day had spread to non-Jews. Eating beans on New Year’s Day was also a tradition in France and Spain during the Middle Ages.  French and Spanish settlers likely brought this tradition with them.  African bean and rice dishes are believed to be the primary influence on the development of hoppin’ John in the south.  Southern slaves often prepared a humble combination of rice and beans, both abundant in the American South, that eventually became known as hoppin’ John.

Although no one really knows where the name of this dish originated, there are many theories.  One theory says that the dish earned its name from children hopping around the table before they could eat their beans and rice.  Another story says that a hobbled man, known as Hoppin’ John, sold the dish on the streets of Charleston, SC.  An old South Carolina custom involving inviting a guest to eat by saying “Hop in, John” has also been hypothesized as being the origin of the dish’s name.

Just as there is uncertainty surrounding the name of the dish, theories regarding how hoppin’ John came to symbolize prosperity or how eating it would provide good luck for the coming year are limited.  Many suggest that the peas are meant to symbolize the wealth of coins and the collard greens that are commonly served with the dish represent paper money.  Another aspect of the tradition involved burying a coin in the dish and whoever got the coin in his or her dish was assured good luck throughout the year.

This Southern tradition has spread throughout the country.  Many different versions exists using different types of beans or peas.  Here in South Carolina hoppin’ John typically consists of rice and black-eyed peas and is cooked with bacon, pork fat, or ham hock for flavor and served with a generous helping of collard greens and the promise of a prosperous New Year.

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