Black History Month: Hoppin’ John
In 2023, the theme of Black History Month is Black Resistance and Eat the Culture is recognizing the remarkable and, frankly, underrated resistance of our ancestors in bringing culinary traditions across the Atlantic to shape the vibrancy of Black cuisine that we know and love today. They physically and mentally carried African foodways across the deadly Middle Passage to pass down through generations. This year’s Black History Month Virtual Potluck traces popular dishes of the Diaspora from their West African roots to North America and beyond. Share these recipes with your friends and loved ones and follow each participant by using the hashtag #BHMVP2023 on Instagram
You can grab the full list of recipes from this year’s collaboration on the Eat the Culture website.
From Waakye to Hoppin’ John
Waakye is a simple, savory rice and beans dish native to northern Ghana. Our ancestors brought this versatile staple to the American South, Caribbean, and South America. Today, I’m teaching you how to make Hoppin’ John from the Southern United States and encourage you to follow the story through Waakye from Ghana, Jamaican Rice and Peas from Jamaica, and Guyanese Cook Up Rice from Guyana.
Growing up and living in the South, I have eaten many variations of Hoppin’ John and other rice dishes. Family histories and taste preferences always influence each one, and ingredient availability- no matter how it has always been a dish I enjoyed and respected! For my version of Hoppin’ John, I chose to honor its Low Country origins by using Carolina Gold Rice and Sea Island red peas.
What is Hoppin’ John?
Hoppin’ John is a savory one-pot meal made of rice, pork, and cowpeas. Folks in the Southern United States most famously eat it. New Year’s Day it’s served to symbolize prosperity. It is a beautiful dish to serve all year long, in my opinion. It’s hearty, delicious and simple to make.
Its origin dates back to the early 1800s in the Southern United States. The cooking techniques and flavors used to make this dish reflect traditions brought to the Carolinas by enslaved Africans during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. For example, using minimal ingredients, locally grown foods, and few utensils.
There are varying stories about how the name ‘Hoppin’ John’ originated for the meal. For example, some stories tell about a man name John who sold field peas in the streets of Charleston. Others mention enslaved children hopping around a table, enjoying their meal of cooked rice. There seem to be hundreds of folklores around the the name.
Many of these folklores are explored by food historians like Karen Hess who wrote The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection. In her thesis, she takes a fascinating deep dive into the accounts and receipts (an old name for ‘recipes’). According to Hess, “Most of the proposed origins are demeaning to African-Americans, representing pop etymology of a low order.” She then attempts to reconstruct the words ‘hoppin’ and ‘john’, tying them to ancient Arabic and many African dialects.
Cowpeas, Carolina Gold Rice and Cooking Methods
Why are cowpeas used in Hoppin’ John?
Because of varying traditions and the availability of ingredients in different regions, you’ll notice that Hoppin’ John recipes use different cowpeas. Cowpeas vary significantly in size, flavor, and color.
Let’s start with what cowpeas are! They are legumes that grow well in sandy soil, just like in Africa, Asia, and the coastal regions of southern America. Domesticated in Africa, cowpeas are one of the oldest crops to be farmed. There are various subspecies of cowpeas including black-eyed peas, crowder peas, and sea island peas- all of which are used in Hoppin’ John recipes.
You’ll likely find that most Hoppin’ John recipes include black-eyed peas. In the United States, black-eyed peas are more commonly sold today than others in the cowpea family. I use dried Red Sea Island Peas, first cultivated by the Gullah Geechee people. There are still small farms in South Carolina that harvest the peas today. Although I live in Kentucky, I know because of my annual travels to the region. Recently, I relied on online shopping to buy some. This really put into perspective how times have changed!
What rice is used in Hoppin’ John?
Traditionally, Carolina Gold rice is used to make Hoppin’ John. It’s an earthy, nutty-flavored variety of rice that is known for it’s golden hue. In World of Slave, by Kym S. Rice, “Broken or unpolished rice that was not sold was given to the enslaved community as an addition to their rations”. She continues to explain that cowpeas were boiled, seasoned, and then “…mixed with broken rice, salt fish or pork to form a tasty dish”.
The only Carolina Gold Rice I could find in my town was at Whole Foods. Please note that I used parboiled rice, which affects the cooking time. Parboiled rice cooks faster than other varieties.
Other Hoppin’ John Variations
Types of Meat: Bacon, Ham Hock, Salt Pork, Sausage or Smoked Turkey
Vegetables (besides peas): Celery, Onions, Bell Peppers, Collard Greens, Garlic, Carrots, and/or Tomatoes
Types of peas: Blackeyed peas, red peas, crowder-peas, etc.
Cooking methods: Stove-top only or a combo of stove/oven.
All in All
Hoppin’ John is an empowering dish that continues to represent the resilience and traditions of the African diaspora. Although recipes vary across families, the essence of Hoppin’ John is felt through the traditional rice and peas being slow-cooked with fresh vegetables, preserved meat, and flavorful seasonings. I highly recommend making this dish in honor of Black History Month!
- 1 Pork Shank or Ham Hock
- 1 cup Red Sea Island peas soaked overnight
- 1 1/2 cups Carolina Gold Rice preferably parboiled
- 2 stalks celery chopped
- 1 yellow onion diced
- 1 green bell pepper diced
- 2 tsp Kosher salt
- 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/4 tsp ground thyme
- 2 tsp Chicken Soup Base I used Better than Bouillon
- 6 cups water
- 4 – 6 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar optional
- Soak peas overnight in cold water.
- In a large cast iron pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add pork shank and vegetables to oil. Cook 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently until vegetables begin to soften.
- Add all of the seasonings to the pot and stir well. Stir in water and chicken base. Allow mixture to boil for 5 minutes and add drained cowpeas. Lower heat, cover and cook for 40-45 minutes until peas are tender.
- Taste broth and add additional seasonings if desired. Stir in rice and cover.
- Let simmer 20-30 minutes until rice is tender and liquid has fully absorbed into the rice and peas. Remove pot from heat. Stir in a splash of rice vinegar. Spoon rice and peas into bowl or plate. If desired, garnish with chopped scallions or chives.