New Year’s Day, rather than raucous New Year’s Eve, is a watershed time for many of us. A time to reflect on the year just gone – the disasters, the triumphs, the just-skating-by moments. And a time to plan and dream about the year that shimmers mirage-like, within touching distance, before us. That dream holiday to the Far East, a six-figure book deal, finding ‘the one’, keeping ourselves and family clothed, fed and healthy for another year – whatever dreams and goals that keep you going. The New Year is a clean-slate, big old do-over, the calendar equivalent of moving to a new school, or upping sticks to a new country. It’s our chance to do things differently, to not carry on bumping along on the same grooved and worn path. Or, to carry on towards established goals, but with renewed vigour and lust for life.
Although I am a person who believes we make our own luck, I also believe that we can help things along a bit, too. That’s where this dish comes in. For those of you who are from, or are familiar with, the Southern United States, Hoppin’ John needs no introduction. But for the rest of you, Hoppin’ John is eaten on New Year’s Day as a way of increasing luck and good fortune in the coming year. The black eyed peas of this dish are said to resemble coins that swell when cooked – equated with increasing fortune. Collard greens and cornbread, with extra corn added, are traditional good fortune accompaniments, representing additional financial benefit: ‘peas for pennies, greens for dollars, and cornbread for gold.’ Not really to my taste, but hog jowls, or slab bacon, are an ultra-trad ingredient, pigs being a European, North American and Cuban symbol of progress. Apparently it’s the rooting itself to the ground before it pushes itself forward that makes pigs so lucky. Oh the irony.
Many cultures have good luck foods and dishes, whether eaten at New Year’s, on a baby’s birth, or for marriage. And interestingly, for all the vastly differing food preferences and traditions on a day-to-day basis, when luck comes into it, there are striking similarities. An interesting article over at Epicurious notes that grapes, greens, fish, pork, legumes and cake are considered ‘auspicious foods’ the world over. Fish is perhaps the most logical choice for a lucky food as its nutrition and goodness can be preserved by pickling or dry-salting, and eaten during times – and in places – where fresh protein sources may be scarce.
Like many food traditions that developed before most people could read and write, the origin of the name Hoppin’ John is unclear. It could be, according to Wikipedia, “a corruption of the Haitian Creole term for black-eyed peas: pois pigeons.” What is certain is that the ingredients are a variant on West African rice and peas, most probably adapted by African slaves who worked the rice fields in the southern states of the US, specifically the Carolinas. It is also remarkably similar to the Cuban version, known colloquially as ‘Hoppin’ Juan’, and to the Portuguese, Feijoada – both places historically associated with slavery or for ‘providing’ slaves. Here’s a really interesting article on global food traditions that features Hoppin’ John.
Even if, like me, you don’t really believe in luck per se, I do like the idea of food traditions, especially ones that are healthy, like this version of Hoppin’ John. I have made it without any added fat, but if you need to keep weight on do feel free to saute the vegetables in olive oil, or add some in when serving. And, if the idea of a hog jowls appeals, here’s an Emeril Lagasse recipe to help. Whatever you eat on New Year’s Day, I hope it nourishes you and sets you up for a healthy, happy and prosperous 2012.