Monday, December 31, 2007

December 31: Hoppin' John

"One pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice" — this is how Sarah Rutledge begin what may well be the first written receipt for this quintessential Lowcountry dish. The daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and niece of Arthur Middleton, another signer, Miss Rutledge was the "Lady of Charleston" who anonymously authored The Carolina Housewife in 1847.

Southern ladies are great observers of tradition and superstition. Miss Rutledge probably knew that this humble dish of black eyed peas, or dried field peas, are served with rice and greens and cornbread and pot likker, and are thought to bring good luck in the new year.

Most likely, the dish arrived in the south with the slaves. There were tens of thousands in Charleston and on the neighboring rice plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries. Those West Africans were long familiar with rice cultivation and cookery, and the pigeon pea, favored throughout Africa, found a favorable environment in the Caribbean, where many of the slaves first landed. The Carolina Housewife may have been written by a "Lady of Charleston," but dishes such as hoppin' john were staples in the "big house" that had been brought there by black cooks. You need not be a historian to understand that the slaves taught the master to love this simple dish.

I hope that this recipe brings you all the good luck in the New Year that Sarah Rutledge and her predecessors expected. Happy New Year.

Makes six servings.

1 cup small dried beans such as cowpeas or black-eyes
5 to 6 cups water
1 dried hot pepper (optional)
1 smoked ham hock
1 medium onion, chopped (about 3/4 cup)
1 cup long-grain white rice

Wash and pick over the peas. Place them in a saucepan, add the water, and discard any peas that float. Gently boil the peas with the pepper, ham hock, and onion, uncovered, until tender but not mushy — about 1 1/2 hours — or until 2 cups of liquid remain.

Add the rice to the pot, cover, and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes, never lifting the lid.

Remove from the heat and allow to steam, still covered, for another 10 minutes. Remove the cover, fluff with a fork, and serve immediately with greens and cornbread.

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