Today is the day for making what my grandmother called hopjohn but is called Hoppin’ John by most folks.
It was an article of faith in my house that the first bite of food taken in the New Year needs to be hopjohn to insure good luck. Once we were old enough to stay up til midnight, a spoonful of hopjohn was the equivalent of a toast for my sister and me. (Before we were old enough to stay up that late, a spoonful of hopjohn started breakfast on New Year’s Day.) I’ve made a pot every year of my adult life, and Rick, whose Lebanese-American family oddly avoided disaster for generations without any hopjohn mojo whatsoever, graciously accepts the custom as part of our family tradition now.
Here’s what grandma taught me, pretty much as she would have said it:
“Don’t use canned field peas. Ever. They get mushy. Use dried. Soak ’em overnight, but you have to change the water three times. Throw away any of the ones that float to the top.
Next day, take out the big pot you use for beans. Cover the bottom with bacon grease, or else fry up enough fatback to grease it up. Throw in some onions and maybe, if you have it, some celery. Some people put some carrot in but we don’t. Once all that’s soft but before it gets brown, throw in some ham. Or bacon. Or any other smoked meat you have. Let that get brown and a little crusty. Put your beans in then, and add some water — but not the water you soaked the beans in — or potato water just to cover up the beans. Some people use tomatoes but we don’t. Let it boil up and then put your heat as low as you can get it. Chop up some greens, mustard or beet, maybe chard, but I like to slice mine in ribbons, and add that. Leave it to simmer for a long time, but check back to see if it needs more liquid every so often.
When it’s done, spoon some of the beans into a bowl and mash ’em up with a fork. Put ’em back in the pot, turn it up til it boils again, and let it cook for a few more minutes. That’ll thicken the liquid. Some people serve it over rice, but we use cornbread.”
Hopjohn advice, courtesy of my grandmother Lucy Sybil.
In the years since she taught me, I’ve taken liberties. One year the smoked meat was duck breast and things like cumin and vegetable stock have made their appearance. I’ve served it over polenta rather than cornbread. But I still can’t bring myself to use carrots, or tomatoes.