My namesake. Throughout the South this humble dish of “peas” and rice is eaten on New Year’s Day for good luck, with a plate of greens, cooked with a hog jowl and plenty of corn bread to sop up the pot likker. In Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry, cowpeas — dried local field peas — are traditional. The classic Charleston recipe for hoppin’ john is a very dry version of the dish, but it is served with greens in their juices — or with a side dish of more peas and pot likker.
“One pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice” — thus did Sarah Rutledge begin what may well be the first written receipt for this quintessential Lowcountry dish. As the daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and niece of Arthur Middleton, another signer, Miss Rutledge was the “Lady of Charleston” who anonymously authored The Carolina Housewife in 1847.
Where the name originated is a matter of dispute, and I hesitate to concur with any of the pop etymologies. Still, I believe the dish arrived here with the slaves, who numbered in the tens of thousands in Charleston and on the neighboring rice plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries. Those West Africans were long familiar with rice cultivation and cookery, and the pigeon pea (Cajanus), favored throughout Africa, quickly took to the tropical environment of the Carribean where so many of the hapless Africans were first shipped. The Carolina Housewife may have been written by a “Lady of Charleston,” but dishes such as hoppin’ john were staples in the “big house” that had been brought there by black cooks. Karen Hess, the noted culinary scholar, includes an entire chapter on hoppin’ john in her treatise on the Carolina rice kitchen, but one needn’t be a historian to understand that the slaves taught the master to love this simple dish.
Makes 6 servings.
- 1 cup small dried beans such as cowpeas or black-eyes
- 5 to 6 cups water
- 1 dried hot pepper (optional)
- 1 smoked ham hock
- 1 medium onion, chopped (about 3/4 cup)
- 1 cup long-grain white rice
DIRECTIONS Wash and sort the peas. Place them in a saucepan, add the water, and discard any peas that float. Gently boil the peas with the pepper, ham hock, and onion, uncovered, until tender but not mushy — about 1 1/2 hours — or until 2 cups of liquid remain. Add the rice to the pot, cover, and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes, never lifting the lid.
Remove from the heat and allow to steam, still covered, for another 10 minutes. Remove the cover, fluff with a fork, and serve immediately.