Charleston chef Sean Brock in his elegant James Beard Award winning cookbook, Heritage, calls Hopping John “the quintessential Lowcountry dish” that lies “at the soul of the Lowcountry” as “a metaphor of its history and culture.” Such highfaluting — but accurate — language might surprise the early cooks who experimented with the local ingredients that were close at hand to create the dish.
Hopping John, or more recently “Hoppin’ John,” is no longer a Lowcountry exclusive. Its popularity has spread throughout the state, and the dish has landed in fine restaurants across the South. Atlanta food historian Joe Dabney, another James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award winner, makes much of the dish and documents its presence in neighboring Georgia. He cites a Columbus, Georgia, author, one of whose characters requests that when she dies, the family is to pass Hopping John under her nose to make sure she is dead, “for if a breath of life was left in her, she would sit up and eat.” If not, “they could just nail down the coffin and be certain she was truly dead.”
But for all the recent folderol, the fountainhead popular source of recipes for Hopping John is still the venerable Junior League of Charleston’s cookbook Charleston Receipts. Elise M. Rivers, chairman of the ongoing Charleston Receipts project in 1969, wrote in Sandlapper Magazine that for a century and a half, Hopping John had been in constant use for generation after generation. She wrote, “Made of cowpeas and rice, it is eaten in the stateliest as well as the humblest of Charleston homes — and always on New Year’s Day,” in order to bring good luck.
Mrs. Rivers was speaking for the cooking traditions of mid-20th century South Carolina in loosely setting the standard for the dish as cowpeas, rice, and a few pieces of bacon fried with a chopped onion. However, in the past several decades, the dish has morphed into many variants. For example, Southern Living’s “Hoppin’ John Soup” (January 2013, p. 120) includes smoked turkey wings, country ham, celery, finely chopped collard greens, and cornbread croutons, while chef Sean Brock’s own recipe adds pork stock, diced carrots, celery, and cayenne and jalapeno peppers.
The one remaining constant other than rice, however, is the “humble cowpea,” which Brock notes “was originally deemed fodder for cattle” and food for the lower classes. Some other cooks use a smoked ham bone or hog jowls to cook with the peas. For many, hog jowls have been and continue to be just as necessary an ingredient as rice for the New Year’s Day dish and absolutely essential for bringing good luck for the following year. The amount of bacon used to saute the onions ranges from two slices to a whopping whole pound minced in pieces. Four minced slices are then used as a garnish.
As with most traditions, Hopping John has a much more complicated history than appears at first glance, a history unrecorded heretofore. Early descriptions of the dish turn up in the most unexpected places with some surprising twists. The first recorded use of the term “Hopping John” is in Charleston novelist Caroline Gilman’s minor masterpiece Recollections of a Southern Matron, completed in 1837 and published in 1838. It includes an unforgettable dinner scene at a Lowcountry plantation in which appears “an immense field of hopping John, a good dish, to be sure,” but not “presentable.” It consists of a gigantic “mountain of rice” topped by a gargantuan pile of the “almost bare bones” of spareribs. This “unsightly dish” comes in the company of a roast pig “on his four feet, with a lemon between his teeth, and a string of sausages round his neck.”
The young lady who narrates the story comments that the pig’s “grin was horrible.” The young diners look at each other over “Papa’s pig” and his gigantic mountain of rice and ribs and have to curb the inclination to break into laughter. The narrator’s pleasant and well-mannered young gentleman suitor jokingly fancies up the name of “Hopping John” with a classical touch by using the Greek legend of two ancient giants’ attempts to reach heaven by piling the Greek mountain Ossa on top of the mountain Pelion. He calls the dish “Ossa on Pelion.” He is apparently a very sophisticated lad, whose use of the name of the mountain Ossa also suggests bones and the Ossabaw hog; and hence his new name for Hopping John is “hog bones on the mountain.” Food historians have hitherto failed to find this gem of culinary history.
Novelist Gilman’s description of Hopping John was not merely a fictive imagining. Robert F. W. Allston of Chicora Wood Plantation in Georgetown District, South Carolina, notes in a letter of Feb. 2, 1852 (also unrecorded), that he has just had his supper of “spare-ribs and small rice,” eaten with a no-doubt large glass of Malmsey Madeira. It is clear from these and other early 19th century sources that for the well-to-do, Hopping John did not always include cowpeas, and it came to table on days throughout the winter, presumably after rice harvest and in cold enough weather to allow for hog butchering.
For some of the affluent, however, the dish sometimes did include peas. Because Sarah Rutledge included the Hopping John, rice, red peas, and bacon recipe in her The Carolina Housewife of 1847, food historians feel that the old, lowly cowpea dish had been accepted by at least some of the most aristocratic people of the Lowcountry, according to Karen Hess in her 1992 book, The Carolina Rice Kitchen. Mrs. Rutledge is said to be the first to record the Hopping John recipe. As reported here, however, Mrs. Gilman’s recipe preceded Mrs. Rutledge’s by a decade.
Refinements of the dish today, with the trendy heirloom vegetable movement, have resulted in identifying the specific local varieties of the peas used traditionally with the rice. Chef Brock insists on using the Sea Island red pea with Carolina Gold rice in his recipes. The small, round, delicate, white rice pea is another favored heirloom now being used again in other Lowcountry locales. Another delicious heirloom is the tiny golden rice bean. The result is that the different Hopping John recipes made from these and other peas are quite different.
In the Upcountry, any black-eyed pea meets the requirement. It can be fresh-shelled or dried. The little dark brown crowder pea makes excellent Hopping John as well. However, a newly rediscovered cowpea from central South Carolina is making a stir. This is the Leitzsey cowpea, saved for generations in the Dutch Fork Leitzsey and Wicker families of Pomaria and now available from Sow True Seed Company of Asheville, North Carolina. The Leitzsey is distinctive in a number of ways. The plant has white flowers rather than the usual lavender or purple. It has longer 12-inch pods and a larger pea. The dried Leitzsey is the size of a cooked regular black-eyed pea. It even has a hint of the taste of boiled peanuts! There are many reasons to acquire this variety, grow it, and pass it along. The Leitzsey appears to be a local, central South Carolina pea, as the Sea Island pea is a signature of the barrier islands of both South Carolina and Georgia.
A place is made distinct through culinary uniqueness as much as through accents. One way to have an authentic local cuisine is to seek true and characteristic local ingredients. One family’s New Year’s Day Hopping John may be different from the way relatives prepare it in other parts of the state.
Another local central South Carolina cowpea seems to be made expressly for the University of South Carolina. In the Dutch Fork area, where it has been grown for many years, this pea is called, for no known reason, the Chicken and Dumpling Pea. In the South Carolina mountains, a similar pea is called Ham and Gravy. What makes this cowpea Gamecock-appropriate is its unmistakable true garnet and black variegation on a cream-colored background, which remains true in cooking. Hopping John is yet another example of South Carolina’s love affair with rice, the only true constant in the dish. In central South Carolina, eating cowpeas, whether in Hopping John or alone, is usually accompanied by a bowl of cooked collards. Collards eaten on New Year’s Day supposedly ensured plenty of greenbacks, folding money, for the coming year. Cowpeas guaranteed plenty of silver. With continued inflation, one might be tempted to give the edge to the humble cowpea.
The following recipe provides the quickest way to wealth on a New Year’s Day.
Hopping John with Cowpeas
1 cup raw cowpeas or dried black-eyed peas soaked overnight
4 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup raw rice (Carolina Gold preferred)
4 or 5 slices of bacon fried together with 1 medium onion, finely chopped
Boil peas in salted water, preferably with a smoked ham bone or ham hock until tender. Add the cooked peas and 1 or 2 cups of pea broth to the raw rice, chopped bacon, ham bone or ham hock, bacon grease, and onion. Cook until the rice is done. Some cook the peas and rice separately and then combine and cook for a few minutes more. A suggested garnish is a few slices of crumbled, fried bacon on top, with some finely chopped parsley for color. If the cook likes garlic or heat, the recipe adapts well. One of the beauties of Hopping John is that the recipe may be altered to accommodate individual tastes and ingredients.
3 cups cooked peas (fresh shelled peas preferred)
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1 cup red and/or green pepper, finely chopped
1 or 2 garlic cloves, pressed
1/4 teaspoon salt and a little black pepper
1/4 cup lime or lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
Mix all together and chill for 12 hours minimum in an air-tight container, stirring occasionally. Keep refrigerated. Garnish with a sprinkle of chopped parsley and serve cold with a dollop of sour cream or plain Greek yogurt.
James Kibler received his doctorate in English at the University of South Carolina. A poet, novelist, and cultural historian, he now writes and farms at his home in Newberry County.