My namesake. Throughout the South this humble dish of “peas” and rice is eaten on New Year’s Day for good luck, with a plate of greens cooked with a hog jowl and plenty of corn bread to sop up the pot likker. In Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry, cowpeas—dried local field peas—are traditional. The classic Charleston recipe for hoppin’ john is a very dry version of the dish, but it is served with greens with their juices—or with a side dish of more peas and pot likker.
“One pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice”—thus did Sarah Rutledge begin what may well be the first written receipt for this quintessential Lowcountry dish. As the daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and niece of Arthur Middleton, another signer, Miss Rutledge was the “Lady of Charleston” who anonymously authored The Carolina Housewife in 1847.
Where the name originated is a matter of dispute, and I hesitate to concur with any of the pop etymologies. Still, I believe the dish arrived here with the slaves, who numbered in the tens of thousands in Charleston and on the neighboring rice plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries. Those West Africans were long familiar with rice cultivation and cookery, and the pigeon pea (Cajanus), favored throughout Africa, quickly took to the tropical environment of the Caribbean where so many of the hapless Africans were first shipped. The Carolina Housewife may have been written by a “Lady of Charleston,” but dishes such as hoppin’ john were staples in the “big house” that had been brought there by black cooks. Karen Hess, the noted culinary scholar, includes an entire chapter on hoppin’ john in her treatise on the Carolina rice kitchen, but one needn’t be a historian to understand that the slaves taught the master to love this simple dish.