My childhood was plagued by a problem that I never managed to escape. My mother’s New Orleans heritage dictated that most meals had to be accented with mounds of rice and beans. Most of the time they were red beans, sometimes they were black-eyed peas or ever frightening navy beans, but it really didn’t matter either way; I detested every single variety. The smell, the mushiness, the feeling of those skin-covered little pods in my mouth—everything about beans disgusted me. My mother insisted that I’d grow out of it and learn to appreciate the flavor of this essential African American delicacy. Never happened. And once I started traveling as an adult, it seemed like my mother’s wish followed me, because the dish was everywhere I looked. In Jamaica, it was rice and peas. In Cuba, it appeared as moros y cristianos. In Brazil, it was arroz e feijao. Wherever I was, the sight of rice layered with piles of beans or peas turned my stomach.
Then I visited South Carolina to cover a story on the history of the Gullah community, traveling from Charleston to St. Helena to Hilton Head Island, and it was there that I learned the far-flung history of Hoppin’ John. “Rice has been the hallmark of Gullah cooking for centuries,” said Thomas Baker, a Gullah chef whom I met during my research. “It comes from our ancestors who were rice growers in Sierra Leone. Traditionally, we combine it with cowpeas, also called red peas or field peas, for a one-pot dish.” I had never heard of cowpeas or red peas before, and I’d certainly never thought about how the dreaded rice and beans from my youth held the same roots as dishes from across the diaspora.
“Some people say that the name Hoppin’ John came from a guy selling it with a bad leg, or that it tastes so good that you hop around, [but] I brush all those things off,” Baker said. To him, the name of the meal is less important than its origins. “This method of cooking we know comes from West Africa. The significance of the peas is that Africans brought them with them.” The rice is similarly significant: the grains were transported from West Africa as well. African rice is a strain called orzya glaberrima, and it was not grown in the U.S. until the Atlantic slave trade began in the 17th century and enslaved Africans cultivated it in the low country of the American Southeast. The people who had been stolen from their homes specifically for their rice-growing skills managed to retain this edible link to their culinary tradition across the diaspora.
So, the fact that a variation of my mother’s rice and beans appeared wherever I traveled—the Caribbean, South America, the American South—makes sense. These were the routes followed by the slave ships. Wherever you have an African presence, you will find Hoppin’ John in one form or another. “South Carolina peas and rice is made with cowpeas or red peas, but if you go to other states, they will use black-eyed peas because that was what was available,” Baker explained. All of these peas are in the same family and are, technically, beans.
Hoppin’ John eventually gave rise to a holiday tradition in the early 20th century that spread across much of the diaspora. Eaten on New Year’s Eve, it’s said to grant prosperity in the new year, with its peas representing coins paired with turnip and mustard greens to represent dollars. But of course, the meal is cherished all year round. “Any important occasion—funerals, weddings, graduations—we make Hoppin’ John,” said Baker. “It’s a special occasion dish. You have to put time and effort into it. People gravitate toward that, they know it’s special. This is cooking from the soul. It’s very personal.”
Gazing down at a plate of Hoppin’ John in a St. Helena diner one afternoon, I viewed the dish in a different light. The rice was a perfect mound of fluffy grains, and the beans, while still not the most appetizing texture to me, did create a pretty russet tint to the whole plate, which Baker said is made even deeper with the addition of smoked meat. For the first time in my life, rice and beans looked tempting. But more importantly, I felt the determination of my ancestors to hold onto some part of their culture found beneath every grain. I might never learn to enjoy the dish, but I did learn to love and respect it.
Courtesy of Thomas Baker, Gullah Geechee Catering
For years, Baker watched his elders cook traditional recipes before processed food became common. Because of this, he stipulates that all the ingredients of Hoppin’ John must be cooked together, not separately, and that includes using dried beans instead of canned. A mushy pot of Hoppin’ John, he says, is the ultimate insult.
- 1 lb. dried field peas, either cowpeas, red peas, or black-eyed peas (Note that red peas stay firmer than black-eyed peas)
- 1 ½ lbs. smoked meat (turkey tails, turkey wings)
- 2 cups long-grain rice (not converted rice)
- 2 tsp. of sea salt
- 2 tsp. paprika
- 2 tsp. garlic
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- ½ stick of butter
- 2 cups water
Bring the water, meat, and peas to a boil in a large pot. You want the meat tenderized and the peas firm, not mushy. If the beans start to thicken and look like a chili, you have overcooked them.
Reduce to a simmer and add sea salt, paprika, garlic, and black pepper. Wash the rice until the water is clear, then add the rice to the pot. There should be more rice in the pot than water, because you can always add more but you can’t take it away if the rice gets waterlogged. (Too much water makes the rice split in half; instead, it should be whole and grainy.) One finger above the rice is how high the water should be. Add the butter to the pot, which will help keep the grains separate. Simmer the pot for 15-20 minutes, turning the rice with a fork occasionally so that each grain is cooked. Serve immediately.