By Russ Bratcher
The recipes for Hoppin' Jon can be traced back to cookbooks from the 1840s, yet enslaved individuals in the Southern United States had crafted the combination of dried peas, rice, and pork long before that time. Its origins seem rooted in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, where plantation owners sought a crop suited to the region's hot and humid climate. Rice, thriving in the river deltas, became a natural choice. However, the white farmers lacked experience in large-scale rice cultivation. The solution came through the slave trade, bringing in West Africans with generations of rice-growing expertise.
While various dried peas can be used, the black-eyed pea holds the most traditional status. Originating in West Africa, there's a belief that enslaved Africans brought these peas, planting them in their new environment to create a dish evoking memories of home. However, the practicalities of the time suggest that enslaved individuals likely didn't carry sacks of planting grain with them. Instead, slave traders saw black-eyed peas as a cost-effective way to feed cargo.
The origins of the name "Hoppin' Jon" are somewhat ambiguous. Some stories claim it was named after an old man, Hoppin' Jon, who sold peas and rice in Charleston, while others suggest slave children hopping in anticipation of the dish. Many food historians lean towards the French term "pois pigeons" for dried peas as the source of the name.
The association of hoppin' Jon with New Year's and good luck remains uncertain. One plausible explanation is that enslaved individuals had time off between Christmas and New Year's when no crops were growing. Hoppin' Jon, often paired with collard greens resembling money and "golden" cornbread, with the peas symbolizing coins, became a traditional dish during this period. Some families enhance their hoppin' Jon's luck by placing a penny underneath the dish or adding extra pork.
In a modern twist, our version of Hoppin' Jon replaces pork with smoked turkey thighs for flavor with less fat. Jalapeños and red bell peppers are added for color and spice, and the dish is served over freshly steamed white rice.
Hayden's Hoppin' Jon
Recipe by Don Quattlebaum