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Joni Woolf: Prepare to celebrate the new year in southern fashion

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. If you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping, perhaps it is time to let it rest, to be satisfied with what you have done — or not done —and enjoy whatever beauty you find in this season. For some of us this is a time of additional worship services, ornate decorations — from the mailbox to the front door to (at the church) the high altar. Though we have varied traditions, there is rich heritage here, and those traditions are not only honored: they are perpetuated so that our children and grandchildren (so we hope) will continue them long after we’re gone. We believe that they matter, that they make us better people, that they bring us together as a community. Some surely do.  And one secular tradition that crosses all ethnic, cultural and class lines is the manner in which we celebrate the New Year.

In my childhood years in South Georgia, we celebrated the New Year with collards (green was the color of money, therefore you might become rich), black-eyed peas and country ham. As far as I know, none of my folks had heard the term “Hoppin’ John”; perhaps we were too far back in the country to hear about the traditions of others. Whatever the name, though, the meals were pretty much the same across the culture. Many of our food traditions came from African influences. Some food historians say that Hoppin’ John originated in South Carolina among the slave communities there. Like so many of our traditions, the actual facts get lost in the passing of time. But one thing remains certain: in the South; on New Year’s Day, a majority of us will feast on something similar to Hoppin’John.
There are as many recipes for this New Year standard as there are cooks and chefs and food writers. The recipes have one thing in common: rice and black-eyed peas. Some food writers believe that the meal we eat today cannot compare to the earlier versions, when the rice was of a different quality. In fact, a fairly recent marketing trend offers Carolina Gold Rice, described as “the grandfather of long-grained rice in the Americas” that can be bought on the internet for about $10 per pound — a little pricier than Mahatma or Uncle Ben’s. And there are articles in national newspapers and magazines that suggest this is not a tasty dish and that nothing will improve it. But for those of us who have been raised on it, who love our traditions and will challenge anyone who speaks ill of how we prepare our food, Hoppin’ John is an annual rite of passage into the New Year (eaten, usually, as one watches a football game).
The following recipe is an amalgamation of several, and includes changes I’ve made over the years. Very little in life is set in stone, least of all a recipe for such a dish. So, experiment with it, add to, take from, change around, make it your own. Then one day someone will say “I want it just the way Mama made it”  — though Mama made it differently each year.

Hoppin’ John
2 cups dried black-eyed peas (or dried red field peas, which are used in some traditions)
½ pound cured salt pork or country ham
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Black pepper to taste
Salt to taste
1 cup long-grained rice, uncooked
1 cup finely chopped green onions (scallions) for garnish
Wash and drain peas, then cover with water and soak overnight. Drain and place in large pot with 3 pints of water. Bring peas to a boil over medium heat; reduce heat to a slow simmer and then cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes. Add pork, onion, garlic and other seasonings except for salt. Cover the pot and simmer 1 to 2 hours, until the peas are tender. Now taste and correct for salt. If the pork was very salty you may not need to add more salt. Use your judgment.  Place two cups of the pea broth in a separate pot and bring to boil over medium heat. Add the rice, bring it to a boil, reduce heat, cover the rice and follow package directions for cooking time (usually 15 to 20 minutes). When the rice is ready, drain the broth from the peas but do not discard yet. Fluff the rice with a fork and gently mix in the peas, tossing them with a fork rather than stirring with a spoon. If the mixture is a little dry, add a bit of the reserved broth, but be careful, a spoonful or two should be plenty. Serve in bowls with a few green onions sprinkled on top and perhaps with a small piece of pork added to each serving. Have pepper sauce and/or Tabasco available for those who prefer a bit more heat. Add a piece of that cornbread you’ve been baking in the oven while the rice was cooking. Now pause, give thanks for a new year, for food to eat, for loved ones with whom you are sharing it. Don’t look back. 2018 has arrived.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net