Cheap Eats:
Hopping John

I can't honestly say that there are a lot of things that cows eat that I have any interest in consuming. Grass, clover, and alfalfa hold no appeal, from a culinary standpoint. But cowpeas might be considered an exception to this rule.

Cowpeas (Vigna sinensis and Vigna catjang) probably originated in India and the Middle East. However, they migrated to China (where they are often called the China bean) and down into Africa very early on, and remain popular on both continents to this day.

From Africa, the cowpea moved to the United States with the arrival of slaves. It spread through the South in particular, where it is still grown as a hay crop, a "green manure" crop, and for its edible beans. However, in the United States, the name got changed (perhaps having "fodder" on the menu just didn't sit right with people). The otherwise pale cowpea has a large black spot on one side, which earned it the new name of "black-eyed pea."

Africa still leads the world in gastronomic reliance on cowpeas, with Asia coming in second. In the southern U.S., however, though not in the ranks of major food crops, it is firmly established, and is, in particular, a staple of that cuisine known as "soul food."

Thomas Jefferson had a part in establishing cowpeas in the United States. Cowpeas were not widely planted until he, realizing their potential as a food crop, instructed the overseer at Monticello to set aside a plot for growing them. Fearing that cowpeas would disappear, he wrote about the plants, obtained from another Virginian, that "great attention must be paid, as they are the last of the neighborhood."

Cowpeas did not entirely by-pass Europe. Though they have not caught on hugely in many countries, there is an area of southwestern France, including the department of Charente and part of the Périgord (veritable epicenter of gastronomy), where it is highly regarded. A gastronomic order (something like a royal brotherhood focused on food) was created in the city of Saint-Gaudens. It is called the Taostos Moungetos, which means "cowpea tasters" in the local dialect. What this means is that, in an area renowned for its culinary arts, the cowpea has been elevated to the status of regional gastronomic symbol.

In the South, black-eyed peas are common, but never so much so as on New Year's Day. It is said that eating them on New Year's Day will bring good luck in the coming year (or, alternatively, it is expressed as "not eating them will bring you bad luck in the coming year" —sort of a "is your glass is half empty or half full" situation).

But one cannot eat just any preparation of black-eyed peas to obtain this benison (or preventive) for the coming year. One must eat Hopping John. There are several stories as to how this dish got its name, which range from the service provided by the waiter who brings it to the reaction of a guest eating it.

Because the Johnny in Johnny Cakes is likely a corruption of an American Indian word, from a dialect of the New England region where these arose, it is not too hard to imagine that Hopping John might be a similar corruption of some name brought over with slaves. The ingredients are ones commonly found in dishes still prepared in Africa, so an African source is not unthinkable (though there are few countries in the world that do not have dishes that combine beans and rice). The alternative name for peanuts—goobers—comes from the African word nguba, and both okra and gumbo have African roots. So why not Hopping John? Of course, I can't prove any of this, but it sounds less stupid to me than the theory that it was named for the snappy service of some waiter.

This is a simple and delicious dish. It should be served with rice. White rice is traditional, but the nutty flavor of brown rice nicely compliments the flavors and adds a little chewiness. Both types of rice work well—but I'd hate to have you mess up your fortunes for the whole year by telling you to tinker with tradition, so maybe you should stick with white rice for New Years. However, this is good enough and simple enough that you may not want to wait a whole year before having it again.

Happy New Year.

Hopping John

1¼ cups dry black-eyed peas

4 cups water

1 large onion, chopped

½ tsp. ground black pepper

¼ tsp. crushed dried red pepper (or to taste)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

8 oz. coarsely chopped salt pork

Put beans in water, bring to boil, and boil for two minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for one hour.

Add onion, black pepper, red pepper, garlic, and bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally.

Add the salt pork. Simmer, uncovered, for another hour, stirring frequently. Remove salt pork and the bay leaf. Slightly mash the pea mixture. Season to taste (though it's unlikely to need salt, thanks to the salt pork.) Serve with boiled white rice.

Serves 6.


Salt pork usually has a considerable amount of fat on it. Don't worry. Because it's simmered, little of the fat dissolves into the dish.

Salt pork is quite tasty—somewhere between ham and Canadian bacon—and can be enjoyed on the side, cut up fine and used as a garnish, or saved for snacking. While you don't need to get rid of the fat for cooking, you definitely want to get rid of it for eating.

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