Monday, January 1, 2018

Hoppin John

As the story goes, or at least how one of the stories go, there was an old, hobbled man sold peas and rice on the streets of Charleston; and, the residents called his fare by his name, "Hoppin John."  That story is just a folktale.  And, it does a lot of injustice to the history of this dish. 

The truth is that "Hoppin John" -- the dish of rice and peas, usually made with chopped onion and bacon (or some other form of smoked pork) -- originated with enslaved Africans.  White plantation owners tried planting a variety of grains and vegetables.  In the low country of the Carolinas, rice took hold.  This led plantation owners to seek out African slaves who had experience cultivating rice.  After being forcibly brought to the United States, those enslaved Africans prepared dishes that reminded them of the food, such as the Senegalese dish, thiebou niebe, of their homeland.  

And, the truth is that "Hopping John" jumped from the squalor of slave quarters to the tables of the white plantation owners.  From there, it made its way into cookbooks, such as Recollections of Southern Matron, which was published in 1838, and Sarah Rutledge's The Carolina Housewife, which was published in 1847.   Thus, a dish that was subsistence for slaves became a side dish for white plantation owners.  

Recently, we visited Colonial Williamsburg during our vacation, where we were able to experience what life was back in the 1770s.  That visit inspired me to pull out The Colonial Williamsburg Cookbook for a couple of recipes to make for New Year's Day, which would be the last day of my vacation.  I decided to make Hoppin John because the dish is associated with having good luck throughout the upcoming year.  (There is no clear answer as to how this tradition originated or evolved.)

While I am not a superstitious person, I decided that it would be good to try this recipe, with a couple of changes.  First, I decided to use turkey bacon rather than pork bacon.  This change was so that my beautiful Angel (who does not eat pork) could enjoy this dish as well.  Second, I decided to use brown rice rather than white rice.  I thought that, along with the turkey bacon, it would contribute to a healthier start to the new year.   Cooking brown rice takes longer than white rice, so I added about 20 minutes to the cook time.  Despite these changes, I have put the original recipe below. 

In the end, this was a good start to my cooking for 2018.  I hope that there will be a lot more to come....

Recipe from The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook (pg. 141)
Serves 8-10

8 ounces (2 cups) dried black eyed peas (soaked overnight and drained)
1/2 pound lean bacon, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, cored and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 1/2 cups long grain rice, rinsed in cold water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce or to taste

1.  Prepare the peas.  Rinse and drain the peas.  In a large soup pot or kettle, place the peas and pour in enough cold water to cover by 1 inch, about 6 cups.  Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium low, cover and simmer until the peas are tender, 40-45 minutes.

2.  Prepare the vegetables.  In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the bacon, stirring often until crisp and the fat is rendered.  Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.  Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat.  Add the onion, celery and green pepper.  Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until softened, 5-7 minutes.   Add the garlic and cook 1 minute longer.  Stir in the rice and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 5 minutes. 

3.  Finish the dish.  Stir the rice mixture into the peas, cover tightly and reduce the heat to low.  Cook until the rice is dry and fluffy, 20-30 minutes.  Fluff the rice with a fork and season with salt and pepper and Tabasco sauce.  Add the cooked bacon just before serving. 


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