Another New Year’s Day is upon us and, as Southerners, we will be eating the symbolic meal of Hoppin’ John to assure a happy and prosperous new year filled with good luck. Most of you are familiar with the dish usually made with black-eyed peas (Texas Caviar), rice, chopped onion, and sliced bacon, all seasoned with a bit of salt. This dish has an interesting history.
Tradition says that the peas are symbolic of pennies or other coins, and a coin is sometimes added to the pot, or left under the dinner bowls. Collard greens or turnip greens served along with the Hoppin’ John are supposed to also add to the wealth since they are the color of American currency. Another traditional food, cornbread, can also be served to represent wealth, being the color of gold. On the day after New Years Day, leftover Hoppin’ John is called “Skippin’ Jenny”, and further demonstrates one’s frugality, bringing a hope for an even better chance of prosperity in the New Year. How did this strange tradition begin?
Unnamed sources indicate that it all goes back to the Civil War and Union General William T. Sherman and his march to the sea in 1864. His stated purpose was to destroy the South, burning what he could, while stealing crops and cows and food stuffs of all types, so that “a crow flying south across the land could not find a provenance”, as he put it.
All that is true, but the story continues that the only thing left to the starving people of the South were the black-eyed peas still in the fields, since the less savvy Union troops did not realize they were edible. Figuring that livestock was the only thing that would eat the peas (hence the alternate name of “cowpeas”), and since they had stolen all the livestock, there was no use for the peas.
Thus, since New Year’s day of 1866, the South has clung to the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on that day of the year. You may not, however, be familiar with Limpin’ Susan. Supposedly, Limpin’ Susan was Hoppin’ John’s wife, and this shrimp and rice dish was named for her. The ingredients for this dish usually contain items such as green bell pepper, Vidalia onion, cooked shrimp, white or yellow rice, and sliced okra. As one might suspect, this dish is most popular in Louisiana and other coastal southern states.
The truth of the situation is that the South was an agrarian nation, and its meals usually were made from what was in season at the time. By the time Christmas and New Year’s Day arrived, their barns and springhouses were low, but they still might have storage apples, sweet potatoes as well as winter crops of greens, peanuts, and some grains, and black-eyed peas.
However these two dishes originated, one thing is certain – they existed prior to the infamous trip of General Sherman, and he really can’t take credit for the delicious dish that Southerners associate with New Year’s Day. The black-eyed pea was also eaten as far back as the Babylonians, so as the Bible says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl. 1:9)
Now – after you’ve eaten of this meal, get ready for a happy and prosperous new year.