Hoppin’ John (Black Eyed Peas for New Year’s)

Hoppin’ John (or Hoppy John) is a centuries-old tradition in the American South.  On New Year’s Day…sometimes even at the stroke of midnight…families and friends grab steaming bowls of this hearty stew of black eyed peas, rice, and pork, which is supposed to give us good luck throughout the new year.  The theory is that black eyed peas look like coins, and thus represent wealth.  Also, pork symbolizes “moving forward” (as opposed to meat like chickens, which scratch backward, or lobsters or crawfish, which move backward, and are thus to be avoided on New Years.)  This dish is traditionally paired with cornbread and a side of collard greens or any other pot green.  (Their green color represents wealth and also brings good luck.)

Hoppin’ John came to the South from the traditional cuisine of Africa, where Maharagwe (spicy stewed black eyed peas) is a traditional staple.  While it has probably been an integral part of Southern cuisine since the birth of the nation, it has been known as “Hoppin’ John” since at least the mid 1800s.  There are many legends about how it got its name.  The most reliable seems to be that a handicapped African American man in Charleston, South Carolina was known as “Hoppin’ John” by the villagers.  He would stew up a big pot of black eyed peas on New Years Day and sell it to the townsfolk, so the dish was named after him.

This is my own interpretation of Hoppin’ John.  I’ve been making it for years and it’s pretty darn perfect.  Of course, there are as many ways to make Hoppin’ John as there are black eyed peas in the universe, so if you’re familiar with this dish already, chances are you already have a preferred way to make it.  Mine is fairly traditional, with the exception of 2 ingredients (Rotel tomatoes and sriracha) and the fact that I cook my pot greens IN with the stew.  I figure if I’ve worked so hard to build complex, delicious flavor for my peas, why not infuse that flavor into the greens, as well?

I make this in my pressure cooker (currently a Fagor Duo) and that cuts the cooking time down below 30 minutes.  (Important when I’m making it during a New Year’s Eve party!)  But you can make it in a regular pot, too, it just takes a couple of hours!

1 pound smoked pork jowls (or bacon, salt pork, ham, pork belly, or any cured pork meat…you can also use smoked hocks or neck bones, but there will be less meat in the final product)

Don’t be freaked out by jowl meat.  It’s the cheek of the pig, and the meat tastes just like bacon, only meatier and richer.  It is DIVINE.  And cheap, too.  Dice the jowl and saute in a heavy pot over medium high heat until the fat is rendered and the pieces are crispy all over.  Remove from the fat with a slotted spoon, and pour off all but 2 Tablespoons of fat.  To the fat add:

1 onion, diced
1 whole garlic bulb, cloves peeled and diced

Saute briefly until the onion begins to color around the edges.  Then add:

Previously sauteed jowl meat
1 quart beef stock (you can also use veggie stock, but NOT chicken, as it’s bad luck. Substitute water.)
1 quart water
1 pound black eyed peas (dried, not canned or fresh…buy them BEFORE CHRISTMAS, stores often sell out!)
1 cup rice

For extra luck, you can toss a lucky coin into the pot.  (The heat will sterilize it, don’t worry!)  Close and process at 15psi for 5 minutes.  If using a normal pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer 20 minutes.  Stir and add:

1/2 – 1 cup apple cider vinegar (to taste)
1 can Rotel tomatoes with green chilies
1 teaspoon – 2 Tablespoons sriracha (a fermented red pepper sauce in the Asian section of most supermarkets…substitute red pepper flakes)
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
30-40 grinds black pepper
1-2 bunches pot greens (collards, kale, mustard, turnip, beet, etc.), chopped  (optional)
1 additional quart water (if cooking the greens…if not, just add enough extra water to return the stew to a liquid consistency)

Close and process at 15psi for 8-10 minutes.  If using a normal pot, return to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer another 30 minutes.  Stir, and adjust seasonings.  There should be a good acid tang, and plenty of salt, with some pungent heat from the sriracha or red pepper.  The longer it sits, the more delicious it will be.  Serve it with a skillet of buttermilk cornbread!

Fun fact:  The leftovers miraculously change their name on January 2.  They cease to be called “Hoppin’ John” and are suddenly called “Skippin’ Jenny.”

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