Hoppin' John: The Evolution of a Southern Classic
Many dishes play starring roles in traditional Southern cuisine—grits, gumbo, collard greens and whole hog barbecue among them. But perhaps none is more totemic of “down home” Southern cooking than hoppin’ John, a rice and bean dish with roots in West African cooking that no self-respecting Southerner fails to consume on New Year’s Day. In Southern lore, eating hoppin’ John and collard greens while ringing in the new year is believed to bring prosperity. The beans represent pennies and the collards, folding money.
But you all know this. And you probably also know that, while the culinary world shines its spotlight on this classic Southern dish but once a year, hoppin’ John is a winner throughout the year and has graced Southern tables as long as there has been a region known as the American South.
But despite the great pride Southerners take in the foodways of the South, the culinary traditions of this region are not static and unmovable like Stone Mountain; they are ever changing like the vast marshes and bogs of the Okefenokee Swamp. And like the canary in the coal mine, food is a vigilant sentinel—one of the first things to signal a cultural shift in our environment.
A handwritten sign outside a Mexican restaurant that reads “BILINGUAL FOODRUNNER/CASHIER—NEED IT,” an article in Southern Living about a restaurant includes the line “staff speaks no English, but menu is in English and Chinese,” taco trucks are more prevalent than “meat and threes” in major Southern cities—these are clear signs that the demographics of the South are changing and having a tangible impact on the traditional Southern culinaria. Classic dishes such as hoppin’ John are no exception.
One of the earliest published mentions of hoppin’ John is in Frederick Law Olmsted’s 19th-century travelogue, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. Olmsted recounts a conversation with “a Southern born gentleman” about the descendants of the indigenous people of America, specifically those people living along the banks of South Carolina’s Congaree River. “The greatest luxury with which they are acquainted,” Olmsted recalls of the gentleman’s conversation, “is a stew of bacon and peas, with red pepper, which they call ‘Hopping John.’ ”
Another early reference is from the memoirs of Jacob Stroyer, a slave on a South Carolina plantation who became a minister after the Civil War. “Among the many desirable things our parents brought us,” he wrote, “the most delightful was cow pease, rice and a piece of bacon, cooked together; the mixture was called by the slaves ‘Hopping John.’ ”
Food historians give Sarah Rutledge the nod for the earliest publication of a recipe for hoppin’ John, the quintessential Lowcountry dish, in her 1847 The Carolina Housewife. Her straightforward instructions for preparing hoppin’ John are shown below.
One pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice. First put on the peas, and when half boiled, add the bacon. When the peas are well boiled, throw in the rice, which must be first washed and gravelled. When the rice has been boiling for half an hour, take the pot off the fire and put it on coals to steam, as in boiling rice alone. Put a quart of water on the peas at first, and if it boils away too much, add a little more hot water. Season with salt and pepper, and if liked, a sprig of green mint. In serving up, put the rice and peas first in the dish, and the bacon on the top.
For many, particularly South Carolinians, this basic recipe—bacon, red peas and rice—is the yardstick by which all hoppin’ John is measured. When I ordered a Latin-style hoppin’ John at a restaurant in Columbia, my dining companion—a native of the city—rolled her eyes and drawled, “Call it nuevo if you like; I think it’s a damn travesty.”
Despite recent modifications (some might say bastardizations), for the first century after hoppin’ John appeared in print, the recipe remained relatively unchanged—similar to the population of the region. For example, the highly regarded Mrs. Hill’s Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book, published in 1872, calls for a similarly basic approach with a slight variation in the meat suggested for seasoning. And more than 80 years after “Hopping John” made its first appearance in Rutledge’s cookbook, Henrietta Stanley Dull published an equally traditional version in Southern Cooking, her now-classic collection of Southern recipes. Little derivation from Rutledge’s early recipe is noted beyond the addition of butter as additional seasoning.
1 cup rice
2 cups white peas
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 lb. of seasoning meat or pork
Salt and pepper
Cook peas, being careful to keep them whole in the cooking, using the piece of meat to season. When done have only a small quantity of liquor left in them. Cook rice as you would in recipe for dry rice or use left over. Mix peas and rice together, season with salt, pepper and butter, serve with bread and butter. This is a good and very nourishing dish.
When the Junior League of Charleston published Charleston Receipts in 1950, a collection of regional recipes that today stands as the oldest Junior League cookbook still in print, Harriott Simons Marshall’s recipe for hoppin’ John, with the exception of the addition of an onion, remained true to Rutledge’s basic instructions, which were published in the same Southern city nearly a century earlier.
1 cup raw cow (field) peas
1 cup raw rice
4 cups water 4 slices bacon fried
2 teaspoons salt With 1 medium onion
Boil peas in salted water until tender. Add peas and 1 cup of the pea liquid to rice, bacon (with grease) and onion. Put in a rice steamer or double-boiler and cook for one hour or until rice is thoroughly done.
Food historian Karen Hess has noted that recipes for this iconic Lowcountry dish remained remarkably traditional since their first appearance in print in the mid-19th century—an observation illustrated by the preceding recipes. This stasis reflects the relative lack of diversity in the Southern region at the time.
From 1850 to 1950, the period between which these recipes were published, the number of people who lived in the South who were “foreign born” (that’s U.S. Census-speak) represented less than three percent of the South’s total population. It was not until 1970 that the proportion of Southerners who were immigrants began to increase sharply. The cookbooks of the time reflect this increasing diversity in the Southern region and, while the precise time cannot be pinpointed, somewhere along the line cooks started getting inventive with their recipes for hoppin’ John. Hess refers to a variation from Pennsylvania that includes molasses and breadcrumbs and is thickened with filé powder as the most egregious of the recipes she has collected.
South meets “south of the border” is one of the most common non-traditional treatments of hoppin’ John—versions that use black beans instead of black-eyed peas, chorizo instead of bacon and other spicy Latin-influenced twists such as adding jalapeno peppers or serving over yellow rice. The dish I ordered in Columbia was listed on the special board as “hoppin’ Juan” —not hoppin’ John. I have also seen a “hopping John, Mon!” on the menu of a Jamaican restaurant, a dish that involved coconut milk and the fiery Scotch bonnet.
In the January 1, 2003, edition of the New York Times, Southern food aficionados Matt and Ted Lee authored a thoughtful piece about the etiology and symbolism of the iconic Southern dish. They closed the column with two recipes—one for traditional hoppin’ John, complete with a hog jowl (or thick cut bacon for the less hardy) and one for Saigon hoppin’ John, calling for ginger, lemongrass, coconut milk, sugar and cilantro in addition to the traditional rice and peas. My “nuevo” hoppin’ John in Columbia and the Lee brothers’ Saigon-style dish reflect the influence that newcomers, notably Latinos and Asians, are having on Southern cuisine and traditional Southern dishes.
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice goes through remarkable changes in size after she falls down the rabbit hole. When she encounters the Caterpillar, Alice is perplexed by his straightforward question—“Who are you?” Alice replies, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning. But I think I must have been changed several times since then.” Such is the story of the food of the world. Traditional cuisines are altered and, at times, utterly transformed by shifting economic, political and cultural forces and the appetites of the people who call our planet home. Traditional Southern cuisine is no exception.
And while hoppin’ John is an instructive example of the changes we are seeing in Southern food, no solitary dish captures the complete story of shifting Southern foodways. One must nibble at a grander buffet to fully understand the flavor of this evolving cuisine, one that has been stirred and well-seasoned for hundreds of years by people who left their native countries and now call this one their own.