Cynthia D. Bertelsen's Gherkins & Tomatoes

Hoppin’ John, or Dashing Myths Galore

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(Due to a foul up with WordPress and dates, this post appeared on December 30. I was not finished with it yet!  But now I am!)

Black-eyed peas, a gift to the New World from Africa. These beans were there as early as 1659 at St. Louis, now present-day Senegal, but they actually originated in North Africa, in what is now Morocco. But maybe you should be eating an entirely different pea (actually bean) on New Year’s Day.

So why (and where) did this bean thing become popular in Charleston? And elsewhere in the South? After all, black-eyed peas are de rigueur in New Orleans, too, another place where France left a big shoe print, with the help of boatloads of slaves and exiles from Haiti.

As far back as the time of the pharaohs of Egypt, people believed that eating black-eyed peas would bring luck on certain auspicious days. And beans were always seen as a food for the lower classes, according to Sandy Oliver in Saltwater Foodways (p. 107), long before the 19th century began.

Black-eyed peas came from Africa to Virginia in the 1600s, stashed in the holds of slavers’ ships bringing thousands of Africans to the New World to serve as labor for planters, and others (including free blacks). These peas, not really peas,  rather beans, apparently didn’t really become a major crop until later, after the Revolutionary War. Some sources say that Thomas Jefferson, essentially the first real American gourmet/foodie, introduced black-eyed peas to the region around his Monticello estate, at least as a serious crop and ground cover, as well as food for both slaves and animals. Interestingly enough, on August 28, 2009, scientists at the University of Virginia published an article in Science about their work with a botanical pest that destroys black-eyed pea plants, one that affects West Africa as well.

John Thorne, in Serious Pig, wrote: “The only thing Africans brought with them was their memories.” They did not bring the archetypal Southern foods with them. No, my friends, they didn’t.

Their food was supplied by the slavers. True, BUT there’s another part of this story that isn’t told very often. Behind the sweat and blood and screaming and starving lies the complicity of African chiefs and Arab traders, with a very long history of slaving amongst Africans. Trade caravans wended their way into West Africa from the north and points beyond. African headmen saw a market for provisioning these caravans and set into place vast rice-growing areas, with the specific goal of supplying food for these traders, prior to the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade. Using slave labor in Africa to do the dirty work. And once that trade began, the same suppliers provisioned the slave ships. Some of the grain and legumes were reserved for seed, planted in the New World as a continuation of the slave food. Over the years, memories of what we truly African food likely faded, turning up in some dishes such as gumbo.

And the beans, well, actually the true peas and rice dish featured red peas, a legume native to West Africa.

Sea Island Red Peas (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

On page 12 of Food & Feast in Medieval England, by Peter Hammond, you’ll find this: “Rice was imported from Spain and Italy. In the early 15th century it cost 1d. per lb, rising later that century to 2d. or 3d. The same royal household with an appetite for almonds used nearly 10,000 pounds of rice in the two years 1286 and 1287.” Rice, therefore, was not an unknown quantity to the English. A concrete example of the use of rice comes with reference to the household of Alice de Brynne, which used 4 pounds of rice a year, employed during Lent as a whitening agent, as well as a thickening agent, and sometimes simply as flour (p. 66, Hammond).

In the American South, there’s a dish called Hoppin’ John, ostensibly black-eyed peas mixed with rice and some smoked bacon or ham for flavoring. Eaten with collard greens, or other greens, the dish supposedly hails from the food eaten in the Senegambia region of West Africa. There are antecedents, some more similar than others: thiebou niebe from Senegal, as well as a dish called Waakye from Cameroon. The modern version of Hoppin’ John is a pale, insipid, mushy rendition of the reality that drives the legend. What legend? That eating this dish brings good luck in the coming year.

As for the rice, that’s whole other conversation. Suffice it to share a few salient points here: Roland Portères, a French researcher, suggested that African rice is Oryza glaberrima, cultivated since around 1500 B.C.  Two areas of cultivation can be found: 1) west of the bend of the Niger – Central Niger Delta (~ 1500 B.C.)  and 2) Senegambia in Casemance River area (~1500 B.C. – 1800 B.C.). Another researcher, Raymond Mauny, disagreed, saying that rice cultivation was introduced into Africa introduced via the Mediterranean through Arab traders between the 8th and 15h centuries regardless of what is what in this case.  Africans DID develop a very, very sophisticated rice-growing system, highly sought after by Southern planters.

One of the first recipes for what you and I call Hoppin’ John appeared in 1847 in Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina Housewife:

First put on the peas, and when half boiled, add the bacon. When the peas are well boiled, throw in the rice, which must first be washed and gravelled. When the rice has been boiling half an hour, take the pot off the fire and put it on coals to steam, as in boiling rice alone.

Anyone who’s grown up eating soup beans, as I have, will immediately recognize this combination as the so-called original version of that soul-satisfying and simple recipe served night after night in many Southern households, and households of displaced Southerns. The red peas, in the case of my family, turned into small red or even pinto beans. But I would venture to say that the combination of rice with beans, seemingly foreign to modern palates – unless you’ve lived in Florida with its rich heritage of Cuban Moros y Cristianos or Puerto Rico, with its Arroz con Habichuelas or Italian Piemontese rice with beans (panissa) or Indian rice with lentils or Korea kongbap ( a prison dish, admittedly) or a  Hebrew dish known as Orez Shu’it or even the English version of kedgeree, which often appears with beans. And then this crops up: Mujaddara – rice, lentils and meat – mentioned in a 13th-century Arab cookbook, Kitab al-Tabikh.

What this all means is that the combination of rice and beans could not have been a strange one for any of the people who settled America, not even the English. Let’s not forget that the English welcomed/assimilated people from all corners of the world for centuries before they embarked on their often-brutal quest for empire. Different foods, novel tastes, exotic combinations –  none of these were surprising to a people who sailed around the world and disembarked on beaches and in bays thousands of miles from home, people who subsisted on salt meat and hardtack for months at a stretch. How do we know just how certain dishes appeared on the tables of the Big House? How do we know that a ship’s captain didn’t ask his wife to ask the cook to make a dish he ate while anchored off shore in the Bay of Dakar?

Hoppin’ John is a delightful practice, certainly one that embodies hope when the future seems bleak. But misconceptions and fakelore run rife in most discussions of this dish.

Names for field peas:

Clay

Red Ripper

Calico

Rattlesnake

Whippoorwill

Rouge et Noire

Mississippi Silver

Texas Cream

Crowder

Tonkin

Jerusalem

Marble

Cornfield

*For more on the cowpea/black-eyed pea in Africa, see Ndiaga Cisse and Anthony Hall, “Traditional Cow-Pea in Senegal, A Case Study,” FAO.

A source of red peas and Carolina God rice is Anson Mills, Columbia, South Carolina. They provide recipes, too. So check it out.

Other references of note:

Judith Carney, Black Rice

Adrian Miller, “Black-Eyed Peas,” in Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at A Time (p. 111-128)

Robert Moss, The Historic Problem with Hoppin’ John

Roand Portères, La Bibliotèque d’Ethnobiologie

John Martin Taylor, Hoppin’ John

Kim Severson, Field Peas

© 2015 C. Bertelsen

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