Hoppin’ John, a Southern dish of African origin made with black-eyed peas, onions, bacon and rice, was a New Year’s tradition in my childhood home. My mom would make it in a big black skillet and toss a penny in right before serving. Whoever found the penny would supposedly have good luck for the whole year, assuming they didn’t accidentally swallow it before the luck had a chance to kick in. Truth be told, I didn’t like Hoppin’ John that much, but I loved the thrill of finding that bright copper coin.
This year in particular — no doubt because of stresses brought on by the pandemic — I’ve been feeling nostalgia’s powerful pull toward the flavors of my youth. I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother’s cooking. Her fried chicken was sublime, as were her biscuits, cornbread and yellow cake with coconut frosting. She was a master of cherry cheesecake, chewy cowboy bars with butterscotch chips, oxtail stew with dumplings, and pineapple sour cream pie. She made her own caramel from scratch, salty-sweet popcorn balls and sopapillas (a crispy Mexican treat) covered with cinnamon and sugar. She could whip up a triple-decker German chocolate cake or a pineapple upside-down cake in a jiffy. For special guests, she’d make apricot-glazed Cornish game hen with chilled asparagus vinaigrette. Once or twice she made chicken cacciatore and I begged her to make it every night for the next five years. (Perhaps this is why she generally kept me out of the kitchen.)
Some of her dinners I really, really didn’t like, such as her eggplant casserole or liver and onions or, on one infamous occasion, beef tongue. Some meals I tolerated but didn’t love, like her meatloaf and chicken enchiladas, but that was because I was self-centeredly unaware of the effort that had gone into making them. What I wouldn’t give now for a single bite of any of those things! Except the beef tongue. That’s a terrible thing to do to a child.
More often, I recall her basic but comforting foods: fluffy scrambled eggs, oatmeal with brown sugar and milk. Creamy mashed potatoes. Hot dogs slit down the middle, stuffed with cheddar cheese and roasted in the oven. Thick, crunchy slices of cinnamon toast with lots of sugar and butter. Golden grilled cheese sandwiches. Chicken with cream of mushroom soup, tuna casserole, hamburger stew.
After my mother died in 2012, I searched for things that made me feel connected to her. What brought me closest was getting up with my daughter on a school morning and making her a fried egg and toast. That’s what my mother did for me, so that was a part of my mom that I could pass on to my daughter. Of course, it was never about the egg and toast; it was the act of love in arising before dawn to prepare a meal for someone dear.
So I approach Hoppin’ John with a certain reverence, not for the dish itself but for the thought of my mother bent over her skillet, absorbed with the task of feeding her family and sending us into the New Year with a bit of magic.
Making some changes
If you try this recipe, you’ll have made it exactly as many times as I have, which is once. I’ve never attempted it before now because I knew my spice-averse husband and daughter would balk at its peppery heat and the exotic (to them) black-eyed peas. I eased off on the Tabasco and served it as a side dish rather than a main course, although it makes a fine one-pan weeknight dinner, easy to throw together and healthy-ish, if you count all the protein in the peas and discount all the delicious fat in the bacon.
I don’t have my mother’s recipe, but I found a close approximation on thespruceeats.com and made a few adjustments. My mom boiled dried black-eyed peas until soft, but I like this recipe because it uses canned peas, which cuts down on the prep time by a good two hours.
Saute a cup of chopped onion in 2 tablespoons bacon drippings or butter. Some folks add diced celery, but I added a couple of tablespoons of diced roasted red pepper for color. Cook until tender then add two 16-ounce cans of drained black-eyed peas and a cup of sliced bacon, cubed ham or pork belly. Add 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper and a teaspoon of Tabasco or other red pepper sauce. If you’re feeling sassy, add another teaspoon. Salt to taste.
Now either stir in 2 cups cooked rice or spoon the black-eyed peas over the rice and top with sliced scallions or pickled jalapenos. Don’t forget to hide a penny in the Hoppin’ John before you dish it up — a cleaned and sanitized penny, or someone will start the New Year with dreadful luck indeed. Hoppin’ John is often served with cornbread and collard greens, which I despised as a kid but can now appreciate both for its flavor and soluble fiber.
I’ve resolved to spend this year eating mindfully, but not in the way that’s commonly meant. I don’t mean counting my calories, although my pandemic-rounded proportions suggest that I ought to try that before I reach another pant size. Instead, I’m going to think about the people who have fed me and how their work in the kitchen has sustained me, body and soul. I’m determined to attempt some of the same dishes they’ve made for me, and so pass their love to my daughter and husband — and to you.
But I solemnly promise that I will never, ever make you eat a cow’s tongue.