Hoppin' John: The Deceptively Complex Southern Comfort Food

When it comes to comfort food, the Southern U.S. boasts some of the best in the world: flaky buttermilk biscuits smothered in savory gravy, sugary pecan pie, and everyone's favorite, crispy fried chicken. Whether you grew up in the South and these dishes emanate nostalgia, or you just enjoy partaking in some of these guilty pleasures, Southern food is the down-home soul food that is there when we need it most.

However, some of the most delicious and fulfilling dishes of Southern cuisine are lesser-known around the country. Hoppin' John, according to Atlas Obscura, is a blend of rice and black-eyed peas and is served as a traditional New Year's Day meal in the South. Many believe eating Hoppin' John on the holiday will bring them luck in the new year. This dish dates back to Antebellum kitchens; however, Hoppin' John is a difficult dish to restore to its former glory, as it requires ingredients that are no longer around or have been significantly altered for modern agricultural purposes (via Serious Eats). Despite this, Hoppin' John has an important history and plays an integral part in understanding Southern culture.

History of Hoppin' John

True Southern cooking cannot be separated from the collision of cultures it formed from, specifically West African influences. When West African slaves were brought to the Southern U.S., they brought with them pieces of their culture that couldn't be tangibly stripped away. Things like their cooking techniques, such as stewing and one-pot meals, continued to be practiced by slaves (via Due South). Their staple ingredients were also brought over with them, and their foods continued to consist of these ingredients. According to Due South, "They favored the clean and simple combination of vegetables, grains, and fish. The West African influence is reflected today in the most traditional of Southern dishes; Georgian Shrimp and Grits or a Carolina Low Country Boil are great examples of this type of simplicity." And, of course, Hoppin' John, being a dish made from vegetables and grains, has clear connections to this influence.

The origins of the name are also unknown. Some believe the name comes from the Southern greeting "Hop in, John" (via Atlas Obscura). Others say it's slang for the French "pois à pigeon" (pigeon peas). Regardless, the dish is a New Year's tradition for many, and has considerable significance in Southern cooking.

Ingredients in Hoppin' John

Hoppin' John is a dish that has looked different throughout the years. With it being such an old recipe, the meal has seen the inclusion of certain ingredients come and go, with some even disappearing entirely. This can make it a difficult dish to recreate accurately in its Antebellum-era iteration. 

According to Serious Eats, the original ingredient list contained simply bacon, peas, and rice. However, in early recipes, each of these ingredients looked a little differently. Starting with the bacon, in previous eras, salt and smoke were key to preserving meat. Bacon was cured for weeks, then it was smoked for 48 hours or more. This created a much deeper flavor than is obtainable from today's bacon, which is often processed within a single day.

Secondly, the rice used was originally Carolina Gold rice. This rice was "a non-aromatic long-grained variety prized for its lush and delicate flavor. But that rice was ill-suited for modern agriculture," according to Serious Eats. Today's rice doesn't have nearly as much flavor and is processed by machine, which strips away both nutrition and flavor.

The original flavors paired perfectly. Atlas Obscura writes that the Antebellum-era ingredients combined to create "a melange of smoky, nutty, and umami into one hearty dish." However, due to these agricultural shifts, following an old recipe for Hoppin' John will not create such desirable results. Today, many recipes include the addition of celery, bell peppers, turkey, and more varying vegetables and meats (per History).

How it's made

Making a modern version of Hoppin' John is relatively easy since it is a one-pot meal and calls for kitchen-staple ingredients. It is also perfect for a quick dinner since it only takes about 30 minutes to throw together. 

Following Taste of Home's recipe, the meat should be browned in the pan first. If you're using bacon, cook until crisp. You should discard most of the fat and place the cooked bacon on a paper towel. Then, sauté your vegetables of choice until tender in the remaining drippings. Once cooked, add in rice, water, and seasonings. After this, cover, simmer, and then add peas and meat. Simmer a little longer, then it is ready. Some recipes like this one from Simply Recipes even ladle the meat and vegetables onto the rice afterwards, rather than cooking with the rice.

Both simple and delicious, this Southern meal is perfect for cold nights or days when you're desperate for comfort food.