Epiphany, pt. 2: the recipes

fig. a:  Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas

fig. a:  Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas

You've read some background on Hoppin' John, now here are the recipes:

1.  John Thorne's master recipe for Hoppin' John in Serious Pig reflects the passion and erudition that went into his chapter on Rice & Beans.

John Thorne's Hoppin' John

1 cup black-eyed peas or cowpeas, soaked and prepared for cooking

1 small chunk of lean slab bacon, sliced thick OR a cracked ham or beef bone OR a chunk of salt pork, sliced and simmered in enough water for 15 minutes to reduce its saltiness

1 onion, chopped

1 cup raw rice

1 hot red pepper, fresh or dried, seeded and diced OR Tabasco sauce to taste

and all, some, or one of the following, according to your taste

1 clove of garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

minced fresh parsley

a little thyme

salt and pepper

Bring 5 cups of water to a boil.  Add the beans, with the bay leaf (if using), and let them simmer for about 45 minutes.  (If you are using a cracked pork or beef bone, you should add it now, too, and ignore all the bacon/salt pork instructions, frying up the onion in a bit of melted fat or oil and adding it when you add the rice.)  While the beans are cooking, prepare the bacon/salt pork by frying it until the pieces are crisp.  Either reserve these until the end of cooking (to lend a touch of crispness) or put them into the beans when the rice is added.  Fry the onion in the fat once the pork has been removed until it is translucent but not brown.  Either way, reserve the fat.

At the end of 45 minutes, taste the beans for doneness; your tongue should be able to mash them against the roof of the mouth.  If they are soft, but not mushy, they are done just right.  Eyeball the remaining liquid in the pot--there should be at least 2 1/2 cups.  If not, add more water.  Pour in the rice and mix in all the other seasonings, the bacon/salt pork bits (unless you're holding them for the end), and all--or as much as you want of--the cooking fat.  Stir the mixture well and bring the liquid to a simmer.  Let cook for another 20 minutes.  Then turn off the heat and let the Hoppin' John rest for 10 minutes.  Taste.  The beans should be just a little more tender, the rice perfectly cooked.  Crumble over the reserved bacon or sprinkle over the crisp salt-pork bits, if any, and serve.  

Serves 4 "very well indeed."

2.  Matt and Ted Lee's The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook features another thoughtful and reliable take on Hoppin' John, which makes great use of their tasty Rich Pork Broth (see below).

Lee Bros. Hoppin' John

1 cup dried black-eyed peas or field peas

2 tbsp olive oil

1 smoked hog jowl (or 1/4 pound slab bacon or 4 slices thick-cut bacon)

1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped

6 cups Rich Pork Broth (see below)

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 tsp salt

14-oz can crushed Italian tomatoes

1 1/2 cups long-grain rice

Wash the peas in a strainer, place them in a medium bowl, and soak for 4 hours in water to cover.

Heat the olive oil in a 4-quart pot over medium-high heat and brown the hog jowl on both sides, about 5 minutes.  (If using bacon, omit the olive oil and simply render the fat in the pot for 5 minutes.)  Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the broth, black pepper, red pepper, and salt and bring to a boil.

Let the broth boil vigorously for 10 minutes, then add the drained peas.  Boil gently over medium-high heat, uncovered, until the peas are tender but still have some bite, about 25 minutes for black-eyed peas, 30 minutes for field peas.  Add the tomatoes and rice to the pot, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer vigorously for 20 minutes, until most of the broth has been absorbed but the rice and peas are still very moist.

Remove the pot from the heat and allow the Hoppin' John to steam, covered, until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 5 minutes.  Remove the hog jowl and pull off any meat.

Fluff the Hoppin' John with a fork.  Transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle the shredded hog jowl over top, and serve.

Serves 6 hungry people.

And here's that recipe for their pork broth:

Lee Bros. Rich Pork Broth

shoulder bones from a bone-in pork shoulder or 1 pound pork shank bones and trimmings

1 large onion, chopped

2 large celery stalks, chopped

4 bay leaves

6 cups cold water

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the bones, onion, celery, and bay leaves in a medium stockpot and cover with cold water.  Bring to a vigorous simmer over medium-high heat, then turn the heat to low and simmer gently for 1 hour.

Strain the broth into a bowl through a fine-mesh strainer.  Discard the solids.  Measure the amount of broth that's left.  Taste the broth.  If you don't plan to reduce it further, season it gently with salt and pepper.  

Pour the broth into a container with a tight-fitting lid.  If you're going to use it within 48 hours, keep it in the refrigerator.  Otherwise, place it in the freezer, where it will keep for at least 1 month.

3.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the simplest Hoppin' John recipe can be found in Ernest Matthew Mickler's White Trash Cooking.  

Cook enough black-eyed peas with hog jowls until they are tender.  Cook a cup of rice for every 2 or 3 hungry people.  Stir the rice and peas together and serve.

However, Mickler correctly notes that black-eyed peas aren't the only option.  In the words of his friend Kaye Kay, "You can make it out of crowder, field or cow peas."  

4.  Also unsurprisingly, the most intricate Hoppin' John recipe can be found in Sean Brock's Heritage:  Recipes and Stories.  As prodigiously talented as Brock is, he's got a knack for taking Southern classics and busying them up and even getting finicky with them.  This recipe for Lowcountry Hoppin' John being a case in point:   it features three distinct stages (including an usual drying-of-the-rice step) and almost 20 ingredients (!).  A luscious Red Pea Gravy is an element that forms naturally when you cook up a good batch of Hoppin' John, but Brock insists that it stands out even further, and he uses a blender (!) to achieve this end.  In my mind, the genius of this recipe has to do with its attention to ingredients, especially its insistence that Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas and Carolina Gold Rice--both of them heirloom varieties, both of them of an exceptional quality--be used.

Sean Brock's Hoppin' John (Hoppin' Sean?)


2 quarts Pork Stock or Chicken Stock

1 cup Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas, soaked in a pot of water in the refrigerator overnight

1 1/2 cups medium dice onions

1 cup medium dice peeled carrots

1 1/2 cups medium dice celery

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced 

1 fresh bay leaf

10 thyme sprigs

1/2 jalapeño, chopped

Kosher salt


4 cups water

1 teaspoon kosher salt 

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper 

1 cup Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice 

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

Red Pea Gravy

Reserved 1 cup cooked red peas

Reserved 2 cups cooking liquid from the peas

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Cider vinegar 

Sliced chives or scallions for garnish 

For the peas:

Bring the stock to a simmer in a small pot. Drain the peas and add to the stock, along with all of the remaining ingredients except the salt. Cook the peas, partially covered, over low heat until they are soft, about 1 hour. Season to taste with salt. (The peas can be cooked ahead and refrigerated in their liquid for up to 3 days; reheat, covered, over low heat before proceeding.)

Drain the peas, reserving their cooking liquid, and measure out 1 cup peas and 2 cups liquid for the gravy; return the rest of the peas and liquid to the pot and keep warm.

Meanwhile, for the rice:

About 45 minutes before the peas are cooked, preheat the oven to 300°F.

Bring the water, salt, and cayenne pepper to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, add the rice, stir once, and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rice is al dente, about 15 minutes.

Drain the rice in a sieve and rinse under cold water. Spread the rice out on a rimmed baking sheet. Dry the rice in the oven, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Scatter the butter evenly over the rice and continue to dry it, stirring every few minutes, for about 5 minutes longer. All excess moisture should have evaporated and the grains should be dry and separate.

For the gravy:

Put the 1 cup peas, 2 cups cooking liquid, and the butter in a blender and blend on high until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add cider vinegar to taste.

(The gravy can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in a covered container in the refrigerator; reheat, covered, over the lowest possible heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.)

To complete:

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peas to a large serving bowl. Add the rice and carefully toss the rice and peas together. Pour the gravy over them, sprinkle with chives or scallions, and serve.

Serves 6 to 8 hungry souls.

[excerpted from Sean Brock's Heritage:  Recipes and Stories]

Hoppin' John is a complete meal, so you don't really need to serve it with too much else if you're serving it as a main.  A brightly flavoured fresh salad makes a lot of sense.  So does a batch of skillet corn bread.

fig. b:  butter & corn bread

fig. b:  butter & corn bread

What will Benjamin "B.J." Dennis's recipe for Hoppin' John at tonight's Lowcountry/Gullah Nation feast entail?  There's only one way to find out.  I can tell you that he's enormously proud of his Hoppin' John and the traditions that it embodies, and that he'll be using Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas and Carolina Gold Rice to create this definitive Lowcountry delicacy.

Lowcountry on the Lower Main

Montreal - Charleston Connection

B.J. Dennis + Foodlab

Saturday, May 16

5:00 pm - 10:00 pm

Société des arts technologiques

1201, blvd. St-Laurent

Montreal, QC


See you tonight!


Epiphany, pt. 1: the story

fig. a:  the remains of the peas

fig. a:  the remains of the peas

Hoppin' John is not only the quintessential Southern New Year's dish, and a dish of huge symbolic value in the days leading up to Epiphany.  It's also a dish of mythic importance to Southern culture, and especially African-American culture.

The etymology of the name is uncertain.  Some claim that "hoppin' John" is a bastardized version of pois à pigeon, especially if one removes the à as one often would when speaking pidgin French (leaving one with "pwaah-peejon").  Pigeon peas were a type of legume brought from Africa to the Americas, and one that was widely used in the Caribbean, where the roots of "hoppin' John" can be traced.  Others have come up with all kinds of other dubious explanations, many of which are quite whimsical.*   What is certain is that the dish is part of a subset of rice & bean dishes that one finds all across the Caribbean, the American South, and those regions of Latin America that had a slave culture--hence, Brazil's renowned feijoada.  What's also certain is that Hoppin' John is quite specifically a product of the Lowcountry regions of North Carolina, Georgia, and especially South Carolina, as well as parts of Louisiana, places where the cultivation of rice was a crucial part of the antebellum economy.  You can find variations on Hoppin' John all across the South (and beyond) these days, and the dish has long been a staple of the poor Southern-white tradition Ernest Matthew Mickler called White Trash Cooking, but the dish is of absolutely central importance to the Lowcountry's proud Gullah culture.

John Thorne makes a crucial point about African-American foodways in his masterful chapter on Rice & Beans in Serious Pig.  In trying to come to terms with the spiritual significance of Hoppin' John, as well as the level of devotion to it, Thorne writes the following:

To understand the great and poignant imaginative power that has held this dish true to its origins through the centuries, we must first face the fact that when one talks of the foods that slaves "brought with them from Africa," we are allowing ourselves to elide a painful reality.  The only thing that Africans brought with them was their memories.  If they were fortunate enough to have been taken along with other members of their own community and to stay with them (which rarely happened)--there was also the possibility of reestablishing out of these memories some truncated resemblance of former rituals and customs.  But of physical possessions, they had none.  [Thorne's emphasis]

Thorne goes on to describe in harrowing detail the passage from Africa to the Americas and the slavers' eventual realization that serving meals that were at least tolerable was essential if they were to successfully deliver their human cargo alive.  Gradually, variations on native African dishes were introduced to the meals the slaves were served, including beans, rice, and yams.  These gestures were meant to ameliorate the conditions for the slaves just enough that they might make it across the Atlantic without being entirely physically and mentally broken, but they were just that-- gestures.  Thorne continues:

[The] hollowness of such self-serving "humanitarianism" can be seen in the slavers' obtuseness regarding the essential component of this diet:  the beans.  

Instead of the Africans' beloved cowpeas or black-eyed peas, both of which are small, delicate, and sweet, the slavers served them horse-beans, a large, coarsely textured type of fava bean that was used primarily as feed in England.  This substitution "exacerbated rather than alleviated the nightmare."  When the slaves were eventually reunited with their own peas--not because they were allowed to bring them along on the voyage, but because the slave traders finally started stocking them as provisions--the event was of monumental importance, and held "a sweetness that still reverberates down the centuries."

fig. b:  peas & "peacans"

fig. b:  peas & "peacans"

Those reverberation can be felt throughout the city of Charleston and the Lowcountry more generally.  You can find variations on Hoppin' John on menus all across the region, and it's a dish whose relative success can make or break a restaurant's reputation.  You can also find the dish's essential elements--either black-eyed peas, field peas, or red peas, and Carolina gold rice--everywhere.  In December 2013 we came back from the Carolinas with all kinds of mementos, but perhaps the best souvenirs we brought back from Charleston were the black-eyed peas and the field peas we got at Ruke's farm stand.  They were certainly the ones that held the most evocative potential--potential that was fully capitalized when we made Hoppin' John ourselves at home.

Because of its particular legacy, Hoppin' John is by definition a humble dish.  In its most elemental form, cowpeas or black-eyed peas are cooked with a  fatty cut of pork in a simple broth.  Raw rice is added at just the right time and allowed to cook fully.  Seasonings are minimal, usually consisting of salt and black pepper, salt and red pepper, or all three.  Sometimes herbs might be added.  Other recipes include an onion and/or some garlic.  The peas are not served on rice, the way red beans & rice is served in New Orleans--they're fully integrated.  And while it might sound simple, the secret to a truly transcendent Hoppin' John--one that does full justice to its history and traditions--has to do with technique, as well as with ingredients.

It's because of this combination of spirituality and elementalism that Charleston chef extraordinaire Sean Brock places Hoppin' John at the very center of his introduction to Heritage:  Recipes and Stories.  Hoppin' John is his foundational story.  It's his foundational recipe.  It's the dish that he claims formed him the most as a chef.  It's the dish that holds the key to understanding his Southern cuisine.

And it's because of this combination of spirituality and elementalism that rice & peas will be at the very center of Benjamin "B.J." Dennis' Gullah Nation Feast at the Foodlab this coming Saturday, May 16.  Dennis is another highly touted chef from Charleston, and he's been in Toronto this week for the Terroir Symposium.  Michelle was wise enough to get in contact with B.J. a few months ago when she heard he was going to be in Canada, and we're lucky that he'll be teaming up with the Foodlab to bring some authentic Lowcountry cuisine to the Lower Main.

Believe me, this guy is not messing around.  We picked up his shipment of rice & peas on the weekend and it looked something like this:

fig. c:  rice & peas

fig. c:  rice & peas

That's right:  25 pounds.  Each.

So, yeah, you can expect some serious Hoppin' John on the menu.  You can also expect such Lowcountry classics as oysters & grits, and shrimp with Gullah peanut sauce.  

Dennis has established his reputation on his deeply soulful Southern cuisine, and his savvy when it comes to tracing the roots of Gullah cuisine back to the West Indies and West Africa.  In fact, in 2014 he prepared a feast he called "From the Land to the Sea" that was designed as just such a culinary voyage.  Saturday, he'll be focusing on taking us from Montreal to Charleston.  But if you get in the groove, his cuisine might very well take you further.


P.S.  Stay tuned for some tried & true Hoppin' John recipes...

*  These include:  

--an alleged Charleston ritual that involves hopping around a table before a big feast

--the nickname of a Charleston waiter who was famous for his hyperkinetic behaviour

--a guy named John who would get excited and come "a-hoppin'" whenever his wife served rice & peas

--an obscure South Carolina custom that involved the use of the phrase, "hop in, John," whenever a (presumably male) guest was invited over to eat

--Edna Lewis wasn't from the Rice Belt, she was from Virginia, so she didn't claim any special affinity for Hoppin' John.  She grew up with black-eyed peas, but only discovered a whole host of other beans and peas when she moved to Charleston for a spell.  It was then that she first encountered Hoppin' John, too.  She provides yet another version of how the dish received its name in her book In Pursuit of Flavor, one that's particularly blunt:  "There is a dish that originated in Charleston called Hoppin' John, which we had never heard of in Virginia.  Supposedly, Hoppin' John was a cripple who peddled beans in the streets of Charleston and so a local dish made from red beans and rice was named for him."

and so on...