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Front Page - Friday, January 1, 2016

Hoppin’ John gives your New Year’s luck a jump-start!

Kay's Cooking Corner

Kay Bona

The celebration of New Year’s Day is the oldest of all holidays – first observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago. In the years around 2000 BC, the Babylonian New Year originally began with the first New Moon, after the Vernal Equinox, or first day of spring. However, with the Roman Senate’s constant tampering and changing of the early calendars, the celebration of New Year’s Day changed also.

Eventually, in 1752, Great Britain and its colonies in America adopted the Gregorian calendar, where January 1 was restored as New Year’s Day.

Most Americans make resolutions – a tradition that also dates back to the Babylonians. The Babylonian’s most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment, while one of our modern day resolutions might be a promise to lose weight or to quit smoking. I’m willing to bet returning borrowed equipment was much easier to follow through.

 At New Year’s Eve parties and in homes across the United States, watching television is part of the traditional celebration; as most of the major network channels air events at Times Square in New York City. Since 1908, at one minute before midnight, a lighted ball drops slowly from a pole, as everyone counts down the final minutes of the passing year and kiss and hug at the opening second of the New Year. Then everyone joins in and sings Auld Lang Syne.

On January 1st, people visit friends, relatives, and neighbors, and watch college football bowl games, which change some now each year with the College Football Playoffs. This year on January 1st you can still watch the Tournament of Roses Parade preceding the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, California. The other games to watch that day are the Outback Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Citrus Bowl and the Sugar Bowl.

Whatever the custom or festivity we enjoy, most of us share the same opinion that, with a new year we can make a new beginning, regardless of anything that brings “luck.” We can wish each other a blessed new year and promise ourselves to be a better person in the future. These have nothing to do with luck.

However, traditionally, it is thought one can affect their luck throughout the remainder of the year by what they eat the first day. Many Americans begin the New Year by eating black-eyed peas with ham. Black-eyed peas and other legumes have been considered good luck in many cultures, and the hog symbolizes prosperity.

Other cultures believe anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes “coming full circle.” For that reason, the Dutch eat donuts. That one sounds better than black-eyed peas!

The first recipes for Hoppin’ John appear in cookbooks dating back to the 1840s, although the mixture of dried peas, rice and pork was done by Southern slaves long before then. It originated in the Low Country of South Carolina, an area where plantation owners searched long and hard for a crop that would flourish in the hot, muggy weather. Rice grew well in the river deltas, so it was a natural choice, but the white farmers had no real experience with cultivating rice on a large scale. Enter the slave trade and enslaved West Africans who had grown rice for generations. They knew exactly how to help.

The origins of the name “Hoppin’ John” are not as certain. Some say an old, hobbled man called Hoppin’ John became known for selling peas and rice on the streets of Charleston. Others say slave children hopped around the table in eager anticipation of the dish. Most food historians think the name derives from a French term for dried peas, “pois pigeons.”

It’s also unclear how the dish became associated with New Year’s and good luck. The most likely story is that slaves would often have the period between Christmas and New Year’s off, since no crops were growing at that time. However, no one knows for sure.

Above is a traditional New Year’s Day recipe for Hoppin’ John. Believed to have originated with African slaves on Southern plantations, Hoppin’ John is a dish of Black-eyed Peas cooked with Salt Pork or Ham Hocks and seasonings, and then served with cooked rice. Tradition says that if Hoppin’ John is eaten on New Year’s Day it will bring good luck.

Personally, I don’t believe in luck, and don’t think this will change the outcome of my year, but I do know that cooking up a pot of this hearty dish, a pan of hot, buttered cornbread, and a few favorite deserts will make one incredible meal! Invite your family and friends over to eat, drink, and be merry, creating a happy beginning for a New Year. Happy 2016 to all of you!

Traditional Hoppin’ John

1 1/2 cups dry black-eyed peas

1 pound ham hocks or chopped Ham

1 onion, chopped

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

salt and pepper to taste

4 cups water

1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

In a large pot, place the peas, ham or ham hock, onion, red pepper, salt and pepper. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 1-1/2 hours, until beans are tender but not mushy. Remove ham hock and cut meat into pieces. Return meat to pot. Stir in the rice, cover, and cook until rice is tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle shredded cheese over top, if desired.

Kay Bona is a staff writer for the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact her at kay@dailydata.com.