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You’ll see middlins (rice grits) on lots of menus around South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where honoring African diaspora cuisine is a priority among the food community. Rice holds a special place in South Carolina history, for sure. The story of middlins, like so many other classic southern staples, is a humble one.
This New Year’s Day most southerners will be cooking black-eyed peas for good luck, and that includes recipes for Hoppin’ John. We’ll also be eating greens along with them, and don’t forget the hot cornbread, slathered in butter, ready for dunking.
While some southern folk claim that eating black-eyed peas for good luck are a throwback to the Civil War, we’d all be remiss not to know the true origin of this comforting staple. While it’s true that black-eyed peas were one of the only food sources left after Sherman’s March, their tale of origin stretches much farther back.
Black-eyed peas (or cow peas) were a major crop in Africa, brought to North America via slave ships. Check out the book “In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World,” by UCLA professor of Geography Judith Carney. In it she outlines the origins and trajectories of each of Africa’s major native crops that were brought over to the U.S. on slave ships.
The legumes were used as food on slave ships and, later, they were used to feed livestock in U.S. (hence, cowpea). The black-eyed pea first found its way to America on rice plantations (think South Carolina). The technique that combines cooking rice and beans together is also of African descent. So, there you have an origin story for Hoppin’ John, too.
There are so many incarnations of Hoppin’ John! As long as you’re cooking peas and rice with pork, you’re on the right track to a proper southern New Year’s Day meal.
Before you put your own spin on rice and beans, here’s a recipe for cooking dried black-eyed peas from scratch. Keep reading to find a bacon-filled version of Hoppin’ John, too. Both recipes serve two to four and are below:
Basic Black-Eyed Peas
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 sprigs thyme
4 garlic cloves, smashed
1 Bay leaf
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cups black-eyed peas, soaked overnight, drained
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven over medium. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. The onions should have some color to them. Add the thyme sprigs, garlic, bay leaf, red pepper, black-eyed peas and 8 cups cold water and bring to a simmer over medium-high. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently. Skim any foam from the surface, until the beans are tender, about 45 minutes. Discard the bay leaf and the thyme. Season with salt and black pepper.
Hoppin’ John 2 Ways
The first version of Hoppin’ John keeps your beans and rice separate, although this is a bit untraditional. Don’t worry, you can always combine it all together at the end, if you like.
6 slices of apple-smoked bacon, cooked and chopped
2 cups of rice (We used Basmati)
1 teaspoon of bacon grease, rendered from the bacon
3 ⅓ cups of water
Pinch of salt
Hoppin’ John 1
After you’ve cooked your peas, rinse the rice: Using a strainer, rinse the rice under cold, running water. Cook off the bacon and set aside. Add one teaspoon of bacon grease to a 4-quart pot with a lid. Heat up the grease and add the uncooked rice, cooking for two minutes on medium heat. You want to toast the rice a bit without burning it. Add the water and bring to a boil, stirring to incorporate.
Stir in water and salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, until the rice is tender and all the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove the pot from heat the heat and let stand, covered, for about five minutes. Transfer the rice to serving bowls and spoon the peas over the rice. Top each bowl with bacon.
For Hoppin’ John Number 2, combine the peas and rice in a large bowl, reserving pea broth in a different bowl. Heat up a large cast-iron skillet with one tablespoon of olive oil or bacon grease. In batches, add the rice and pea mixture and cook it on medium heat, for a few minutes, stirring (use a wooden spoon) the whole time. As the rice sticks to the bottom of the pan, scrape it up with the wooden spoon and ladle pea broth into the skillet while continuing to stir. You can use as much or as little as you like. Add the chopped bacon and serve family style. This version is a bit thicker and stickier, but both ways offer a true taste of southern cuisine.