It’s often said that Charlestonians share a lot with the Chinese: we both worship our ancestors and we both live on rice. Another cultural similarity is the belief in the symbolism of certain foods. Take Hoppin’ John, for example, the black-eyed pea and rice dish traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day for good luck. The plump, cooked peas are said to resemble coins. Add the customary side dish of collard greens, representing greenbacks, and you’ve got prosperity covered for the year.
This combination is served throughout the South, but in the Lowcountry, the “peas,” which are actually legumes, or beans, are sometimes substituted with dried local field peas called cowpeas or crowder peas. All bear the botanical name Vigna unguiculata. A prime ingredient in soul food, black-eyed peas have been cultivated in South Carolina since at least the eighteenth century. They are an economical and nutritious source of protein, fiber, and potassium.
Hoppin’ John’s curious name has long puzzled culinary historians, but the humble dish probably originated with the slaves who were brought here from West Africa, where rice and pigeon peas were staples. It could also have been imported via the French colonies of the Caribbean. The first known printed recipe is found in The Carolina Housewife, an 1847 cookbook written anonymously by Sarah Rutledge. In it she called for “one pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice.” The iconic Junior League cookbook Charleston Receipts also offers a simple combination of boiled peas steamed with rice, bacon, and onion. The recipe below is based on those ingredients gussied up just a bit. Local opinions vary—sometimes ardently—as to whether you can substitute slab bacon or salt pork for ham hock, use frozen or canned black-eyed peas for dried, or add flavor with tomatoes or herbs.