History & Tradition
The technique of cooking rice and beans together was brought to the South by way of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas in the 19th century. It quickly became a staple in antebellum cooking.
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By the early 20th century, the dish became associated with the New Year and prosperity. Though the exact origin of this tradition is not known, the most likely story is that slaves would have the period between Christmas and New Year’s off, since no crops were growing at that time.
The connection to good fortune is also unknown, but it’s been said that the peas themselves represent coins, or that because they swell when cooked, they symbolize growing prosperity. Hoppin’ John was, and still is, often eaten with collard greens, which were said to symbolize paper money, as well as cornbread, which represented gold. Some families boost the potential of their Hoppin’ John by placing a penny underneath the dish when they serve it.
Although you’ll encounter many variations on the historic dish, they are not all created equal. Most black-eyed peas, rice, and pork sold in grocery stores today are the descendents of modification-after-modification that have neutralized the distinct, subtle flavors that were key in creating the memorable dish of the antebellum era. Therefore, if you were to follow the recipe as dictated in 19th century cookbooks, you’d likely be unimpressed.
As always, when you have a dish that is meant to highlight the simplicity of the ingredients, the quality of the ingredients is paramount. And the original recipes for Hoppin’ John were made with just three:
- Carolina Gold long-grain rice: a delicate non-aromatic rice that produces fluffy, individual grains when cooked. This variety is said to have a cleaner, sweeter flavor; a superior mouthfeel; and a greater composition of nutrients than modern long-grain rice.
- Sea Island Red Peas: a variety of heirloom field peas (a relative of the black-eyed pea) that cook to a sweet, creamy stew with bold flavor.
- Pork belly: not the flash-cured kind from the freezer aisle; we’re talking the kind that’s been cured for multiple days, so it can impart that signature smoky, savory flavor.
To experience and appreciate true, Lowcountry-style Hoppin’ John, you want to get as close to these original ingredients as possible, because the quality of the ingredients deeply affects the final result.
The most important rule in making Hoppin’ John is to cook everything together in the same pot until the rice and beans have separated. This enhances the flavor from the beans and meat without having to add a litany of spices.