There are a lot of stories behind Hoppin ‘Johnand probably even more versions of the recipe. I grew up in Deep South, where Hoppin ‘John – a dish made with rice and peas – was always served on New Year’s Day along with our greens and cornbread. But it was not referred to just one day of the year.
While Hoppin ‘John was supposed to bring prosperity and good luck to the new year, rice dishes with a casserole made with almost anything were a part of the table at regular intervals, and courts of all kinds were always in our diets. I did not find out until I was much older that cowpeas are not known to most people outside of the Deep South. Only when I got older did I realize that Hoppin ‘John I grew up eating and what other people call Hoppin’ John are very different.
Not only had I never had the dish made with the black-eyed peas that many used, but I had never had it does not made with rice, meat and peas cooked together. Plain boiled rice with peas on top was just … rice with peas on top, and mixing them together after that just seemed like it defeated the purpose of making them separately.
I had also noticed that we – people from the lowlands of Georgia, South Carolina and other nearby areas – made rice that had more color for it because we used field pies to make our Hoppin ‘John. Often called “southern peas”, field peas are the close cousins of black-eyed peas; both are types of koerter, although naming and classification can be confusing, as different regions use the terms differently and often interchangeably.
But to me, they are not all the same. The brownish-red skins from the markers I grew up with give the rice a beautiful almost reddish color, and their taste is a little sweeter and more nutty than the one with black eyes. Cooking them all together with a flavorful broth made from smoked meats and aromatics gives impressive flavor to the white long-grain rice you choose to use.
It took me a while to learn that there was a reason most people now use black-eyed peas instead of marker peas. During the great migration out of the deep south of black peoples, people still carried on their traditions, even when they could not carry the ingredients. Coars in all shapes, sizes and colors are found all over the country, but these very specific field pies were only found in the south. So when the people moved, they adapted and used another, albeit well-known, substitute in the form of the black eye.
Over the years, I have seen other adaptations where people make the classic dish their own way of fitting into their lifestyle. Some people swear by bacon in their Hoppin ‘John, and although I do not feel it is necessary given the smoked meat already in there, feel free to add some rendered crispy bacon at the end while you fluff the rice , so a bit of its crisp texture is left. Or you can use bacon instead of the smoked ham hock required in the recipe, or add them both together! I did not grow up eating much or any pork at all, so we used smoked turkey (necks, tails, wings whatever you could find) instead of ham-hash or salty pork often found in recipes, and we added beef bacon (or no bacon at all) instead.
I’ve even seen vegetarian versions done that contain no smoked meat at all, and instead the grains and legumes get their flavor from cooking the peas in vegetable broth.
My recipe starts with slow cooking the smoked meat in water so that it falls apart, leaving a broth that is not only deep and rich, but that makes your whole house smell good. Then I cook the peas in the same broth with just a few spices and seasonings. The last step is to add parboiled rice and cook the dish in the oven until the rice is fluffy, each grain is dry enough to keep all the ingredients separate but still tender.
Even I have not mastered the art of making Hoppin ‘John with traditional Carolina Gold rice, which should be cooked differently than your average medium or long grain rice you find in stores. I have found that parboiled rice is one of the best options for soft grains that are tender but still dry enough not to be glued together.
For that purpose, I also use the oven for the final cooking phase. Even after many years of practice, I still can not reliably perform the whole process on the stove, where my rice sometimes turns into mash – something I am sure many, many grandmothers and aunts shamelessly shake their heads at me for. Fortunately, the oven delivers a more gentle heat that boils the rice through from all sides without the risk of scorching or requires stirring or overcooking that can release starch and push Hoppin ‘John in the direction of what we call a “mash. It also steers the rice away from developing a mushroom-like or risotto-like consistency, where the grains are wetter and more liquid is left in the pan.
This recipe easily feeds six to eight people, and although it could be scaled down, it is a dish usually served with friends and family, especially during the holidays. The more you make (and eat), the more prosperity you will have in the new year.