Hopping John is a traditional New Year’s Day food in the American South. The dish consists of black-eyed peas and rice, seasoned with onions, a bit of pork, and some salt and pepper. It developed among rice plantation slaves in South Carolina and eventually spread to the surrounding black and white communities. Recipes for hopping John appear in cookbooks written by white Southerners as early as the latter half of the nineteenth century (see also SLAVES’ CHRISTMAS; CHRISTMAS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA).
Cookbook author Karen Hess speculates that in making hopping John slaves were recreating the familiar dishes of their African up-bringing. This kind of dish, a rice and bean pilaf, can be found throughout the rice-growing regions of Asia and Africa. Hess believes the name “hopping John” in fact derives from the Malay word kach-ang, referring to a certain type of bean, and the Hindi word bhat, which means cooked rice.
Food writer John Thorne suggests another origin for hopping John. He suspects that Caribbean slaves first invented the dish and brought it with them to the United States. He proposes that the name “hopping John” comes from the French word used by these Caribbean slaves to describe the beans that make up the mainstay of the dish: pois a pigeon, or pigeon peas. When English speakers were told that the dish consisted of pois a pigeon, pronounced in the Creole dialect as “pwaah-peeJON,” they might easily have dubbed the dish “hopping John.” African slaves brought pigeon peas with them to the Caribbean, where they thrived. Pigeon peas never really took root in the United States, where other types of beans and peas have replaced them in dishes like hopping John.
Over the years ordinary people have come up with a variety of imaginative explanations for the dish’s unusual name. One such explanation suggested that the name of the dish went along with a peculiar custom requiring children to hop around the dining room table before it was served. Another wraps a bit of a folktale around the name, proposing that there once was a man named John who loved the dish so much that he always came “a-hopping” when his wife set it on the table.
No one knows exactly how hopping John — originally the humble fare of slaves and poor folk—became attached to New Year’s Day, or why consuming it on this date brings good luck. Folk wisdom suggests that by “eating poor” on New Year’s Day, one becomes a magnet for rich foods during the rest of the year. An old, southern folk rhyme confirms this theory:
Those black-eyed peas are lucky
When et on New Year’s Day;
You’ll always have sweet ‘taters,
And possum come your way [Kane, 1998,155].
Other superstitions have also attached themselves to the dish. For example, some say that on New Year’s Day hopping John should always be served with a side dish of greens so as to attract green-backs, that is, paper money. Still others believe that the luck-bring-ing effects of the dish can be enhanced by adding side dishes of sweet potatoes and cornbread.