The following article appears in the Winter 2011 Issue of Gastronomica, and is based on a lecture I gave at the first Beans + Rice conference at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Deconstructing My Namesake
by John Martin Taylor
In 1985 I was apprenticing with Nach Waxman at his Kitchen Arts & Letters in
I was born in
There have been many conjectures about the name, hoppin’ john. My dear friend and colleague, the late, great culinary historian Karen Hess,3 was convinced, and attempted to prove through assiduous research, that the name comes from the old Persian bahatta kachang, meaning cooked rice and beans, from Hindi and Malay origins. Her sources are historical, etymological, and sociological.4 It makes sense, but I’m not convinced, though it’s certainly more compelling than the folk etymologies surrounding the dish, e.g., that it was hawked on the streets of Charleston by a crippled man known as Hoppin’ John; that the name is a corruption of “pois à pigeon” (pigeon peas), another legume brought to the New World from Africa; or that children were required to hop around the table before the dish was served. Historians call these apocryphal tales “fakelore” because they are based on neither fact nor historical record; Karen added that “most of the proposed origins are demeaning to African-Americans.”5
The dish certainly came from
Hess speculated in her seminal work, The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection, that there is a Provencal connection to the pilaus of
Culinary history is fascinating, but these days I’m far more interested in both the “big picture” and the cultural aspects of food. Hoppin’ john is, simply, a bean and rice pilau which has traveled from the lowcountry plantations to wherever both black and white southerners have settled. The dish may have originated in West Africa, but this delicious, nutritious favorite of the hapless Africans must have quickly moved from slave cabin to the “Big House,” and on to the tables of the Charleston merchants and freedmen, former Europeans, Jews, Christians, cooks and eaters both rich and poor alike who left the lowcountry and settled across America, taking a love of hoppin’ john with them.
Before Ms. Rutledge provided us with a recipe, Caroline Howard Gilman wrote in her Recollections of a Southern Matron in 1838:
“Lo! there stood before papa a pig on his four feet, with a lemon between his teeth, and a string of sausages round his neck. His grin was horrible.
Before me, though at the head of many delicacies provided by papa, was an immense field of hopping John ;* a good dish, to be sure, but no more presentable to strangers at the South than baked beans and pork in New-England. I had not self-possession to joke about the unsightly dish, nor courage to offer it. I glanced at papa.
”What is that mountain before you, my daughter?” said papa, looking comically over his pig.8
Caroline Howard was a proper Bostonian who married Samuel Gilman, a Harvard graduate who became the minister of the
In 1946, Carson McCullers wrote in The Member of the Wedding:
They stopped off for a few minutes to get on with the dinner. F. Jasmine sat with her elbows on the table and her bare heels hooked on the rungs of the chair. She and Bernice sat opposite each other, and John Henry faced the window. Now hopping John was F. Jasmine’s very favorite food. She had always wanted them to wave a plate of rice and peas before her nose when she was in her coffin, to make sure there was no mistake, for if a breath of life was left in her, she would sit up and eat, but if she smelled the hopping-John and did not stir, then they could just nail down the coffin and be certain she was truly dead. Now Bernice had chosen for her death-test a piece of fried fresh-water trout, and for John Henry it was divinity fudge. But though Jasmine loved the hopping-John the very best, the others also liked it well enough, and all three of them enjoyed the dinner that day: the ham knuckle, the hopping-John, cornbread, hot baked sweet potatoes, and the buttermilk.10
. The Member of the Wedding is fiction, but it is said to be the most autobiographical of her works and the character Frankie, who is the F. Jasmine of the cited passage, is the one of all of her many “who seemed to her family and friends most like the author herself,” according to the author’s sister Margarita Smith.11 Set in a small southern town in the 1940s, the book is a brilliant window into adolescence, but it truly illuminates the culture as well. Just before hoppin’ john makes its appearance, we read:
“Don’t call me Frankie!” she said. “I don’t wish to have to remind you any more.”
It was the time of the early afternoon when in the old days a sweet band would be playing. Now with the radio turned off, the kitchen was solemn and silent and there were sounds from far away. A colored voice called from the sidewalk, calling the names of vegetables in a dark, slurred tone, a long, unwinding hollering in which there were no words. Somewhere, near in the neighborhood, there was the sound of a hammer, and each stroke left a round echo.12
McCullers could simultaneously draw broad strokes and pinpoints of light. Hoppin’ john was part of her world.
It was also part of Tennessee Williams’s. Southern food and drink are often major characters in his plays, and in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Mama knows how to satisfy Big Daddy:
Big Mama: Did you all notice the food he ate at the table? Did you all notice the supper he put away? Why, he ate like a hawss!…Why, that man – ate a huge piece of cawn-bread with molasses on it! Helped himself twice to hoppin’ John.
Margaret: Big Daddy loves hoppin’ john. – We had a real country dinner.
Big Mama: Yair, he simply adores it! An’ candied yams? That man put away enough food at that table to stuff a…field-hand!
Gooper: I hope he don’t have to pay for it later on…
Big Mama: Why should Big Daddy suffer for satisfying a normal appetite? 13
Much as been written about the rice plantation of South Carolina and the knowledge system that came with the enslaved from West Africa.14 Until my gentleman planter friend Dick Schulze reintroduced Carolina Gold to the lowcountry in the 1980s,15 there had been virtually no rice grown in the area in 60 years. The Civil War had taken away the slave labor; the grain had been introduced into
Interestingly, though, people still ate rice at nearly every meal. And many sandlappers, as residents of the lowcountry are apt to call themselves, continue to do so. When Fritz Hollings was elected Governor of South Carolina in 1958, he learned that its largely rural population was suffering from malnutrition, even though they were eating the same foods they had eaten since the end of the Civil War. He funded a study of the diets of the malnourished and found that all of the rice being eaten in the state was also imported. Stripped of its nutrients in the milling process, it was filling bellies, but not sustaining life. He rushed a bill through the state legislature requiring that all rice sold in the state be fortified with the vitamins and minerals stripped off in the milling process; further, directions must instruct the cook not to wash the rice before cooking, which would rinse away those restored nutrients. The law is still on the books.17
I grew up eating hoppin’ john in the land of cowpeas – those “red peas” that Sarah Rutledge called for in that earliest of written recipes for the dish. Many food writers seem to think that boiled peanuts and grits are the defining foods of the South, but I sell stone-ground, whole-grain, heirloom corn grits to folks in every state, and many of my customers are chefs in restaurants. Very few of them are, in fact, southerners. And the Lee Bros. have popularized boiled peanuts in
Yet another shelling bean of the South is the butterbean, or Sieva bean, but those Lima types are, well, an entirely different bag of beans, as are yard-long beans, which resemble green beans, but which are a subspecies of Vigna unguiculata, which may have originated in Africa, but have been in Asia for thousands of years, 22 and are not directly related to the New World beans. Because of the confusion, I urge food writers to use scientific nomenclature, and not worry about how it’s pronounced.
Cowpeas are as varied as grapes or apples, and southerners tend to crave the type that was grown in their neck of the woods. I’m partial to cream peas and some of the lesser known black-eyed types, such as whippoorwills, but, in truth, I love them all.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1798 that the cowpea ”is very productive, excellent food for man and beast.” He praised the plants’ ability to improve the “tilth and fertility” of the soil, and he sowed them in the South Orchard at Monticello between 1806 and 1810.23 Perhaps the cowpea’s reputation as both fodder and a soil enhancer has kept it off tables, because the season is not too long for many American climates. Indeed, Weaver grows several varieties in his awe-inspiring garden in
Jesus quoted the Torah when he said that man does not live by bread alone, imploring his flock to cultivate spiritual health as well. I choose to believe that the ancient texts were based on far more practical homilies. That is, grains do not provide us with all we need to live. Neither wheat nor corn nor rice can sustain life. They lack certain amino acids to form complete proteins. When grains are combined with pulses, however, complete proteins become accessible to humans. The enslaved West Africans who arrived in Carolina had for centuries grown cowpeas and pigeon peas to complement their rice, as well as root vegetables, greens, and other grains such as millet and sorghum, most of which quickly became established in the New World, or were replaced with similar plants. Many of the enslaved were also excellent herdsmen and understood free-ranging cattle long before and much better than their European masters. As Judith Carney explained in Black Rice, in the vast wetlands of the Inland Niger Delta, following rice harvests, cattle entered the fields to graze on the stubble, “their manure fertilizing the soil. This seasonal rotation between rice cultivation and pastoralism embraces a clever land-use strategy that satisfies both cereal and protein … needs while improving crop yields through the addition of animal manure. Rice farmers [farther] south…in the absence of cattle …rely upon other techniques to maintain soil fertility, such as rotating fields with nitrogen-fixing legumes and intercropping plants that add crucial nutrients to the soil.”25 In her latest book, Dr. Carney and Richard Rosomoff point out that “The practice of leaving cattle to graze on the plants’ [leavings]…is likely responsible for the plant’s alternative names in English (cowpea), Portuguese (ervilha de vaca) and Spanish (chícaro de vaca).”26
It’s too bad that future southerners didn’t pay more attention to the successful and sophisticated Native American and African farming techniques. Monoculture, as we know, has continued to destroy even the smallest farmers of the South, who have gone from one ill-fated crop such as cotton to another, such as the Christmas trees that replaced heirloom corn and bean patches throughout
In Washington, I’ve grown Mississippi Silvers, razorbacks, purple hulls, and clay cowpeas – a rare old favorite of Confederate soldiers who both added them to their rations and planted them alongside battlefield stations.29 One of the great beauties of growing them is that you can eat them fresh (I simply boil a piece of smoked ham hock or neck bones in water until it’s seasoned, then add the peas and cook on a low boil for about half an hour) or save the dried beans for winter use, though let me advise you to freeze them first to kill any critters. There’s nothing more disheartening than opening your precious stash of whippoorwills on New Year’s Day to find them riddled with bugs. Sometimes I can harvest both green and dried cowpeas on the same day from the same plants. Cowpeas will grow right up to frost, then you simply leave the plants in the ground to provide nutrients for next year’s corn.
Cowpeas are favored all over the world now. And wherever you find them, you are likely to also find rice. And wherever you find rice, you’re likely to find some form of rice and beans. In a recent Facebook exchange, I followed several well-known southern cookbook authors’ discussion of what they thought was southern and what wasn’t. “I draw the line at Saigon Hoppin’ john,” wrote one. “I don’t care how many Vietnamese live down south now.” I couldn’t resist butting in and telling her that we’ve known for several years that cowpeas got to Asia several thousand years before they got to America.30 In Vietnam, rice and black-eyed peas are cooked just like hoppin’ john, though the street vendors who sell it often have a stalk of lemon grass garnishing it in lieu of Miss Rutledge’s mint.31
It’s no wonder that the black-eyed type became the defining cowpea of the dish as it spread across the country in what I call the Southern Diaspora. Mature at 65 to 70 days, it doesn’t require the 85 to 90 or more days that many of the other more delicate lady peas, cream peas, and white acres do. The common names are as confusing as the scientific nomenclature, and, like barbecue and jambalaya, the way you like your hoppin’ john probably has more to do with where you were grew up than with actual taste. Hoppin’ john has managed to keep its name, but even the same varieties of cowpeas seem to change names as you cross county lines. You can grow them anywhere you have full sun and warm, well-drained soil. Their ability to grow in poor soil is legendary, but they still remain a mostly southern vegetable. Like many African plants, they are extremely versatile, though few people today use these old foodways: the green seeds can be roasted like peanuts, the leaves may be used as a potherb, and, in hard times, you can dark-roast the seeds as a coffee substitute.32
Weaver claims that their “close association with African Americans and the
In 1879, Marion Cabell Tyree edited the remarkable Housekeeping in Old Virginia containing Contributions from Two Hundred and Fifty of Virginia’s Noted Housewives, Distinguished for Their Skill in the Culinary Art and Other Branches of Domestic Economy. In it there appears, attributed to Mozis Addums, a “Resipee for Cukin Kon-Feel Pees,” 34 complete with condescending eye dialect, which is the spelling device used by writers to disparage a speaking character’s non-standard pronunciation and grammar. Such spellings can be effective in fiction, but they mostly serve to make the writer appear superior by making the speaker seem uncouth and illiterate.35 There was no Moses Adams. It was one of several pseudonyms for the blowhard racist, George William Bagby, author of The Old Virginia Gentleman, in which I read the most disturbingly bigoted diatribes I’ve ever encountered. Field peas were so dear to Bagby’s heart, however, that he argued that Virginians were the greatest people on earth simply because they lived where “cornfield peas” grew. In spite of his hysterical, racist ranting, Bagby does demonstrate one truism: in the South, the white man came to love the black man’s food. 36
Two more recipes appear in Tyree’s book: One, for Cornfield or Black Eye Peas, submitted by a Mrs. S. T. (who happens to be Tyree herself), reads, ”Shell early in the morning, throw into water till an hour before dinner, then put into boiling water, covering close while cooking. Add a little salt, just before taking from the fire. Drain and serve with a large spoonful fresh butter, or put in a pan with a slice of fat meat, and simmer a few minutes. Dried peas must be soaked overnight, and cooked twice as long as fresh.”37
Mrs. Tyree’s advice to salt only just before serving shows what black South Carolinians would call “an old hand,” referring to the wisdom of experience that makes good cooks.38 Salt toughens peas and beans, so it’s prudent to avoid salting them while they cook.
Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-Wife of 1824 had long before waxed poetic about field peas: “There are many varieties of these peas,” she wrote, “the smaller kind are the most delicate. – Have them young and newly gathered, shell and boil them tender, pour them in a colander to drain; put some lard in a frying-pan, when it boils, mash the peas and fry them in a cake of a light brown; put it in the dish with the crust uppermost, garnish with thin bits of fried bacon.”39 So much for California chef Jeremiah Tower’s laughable claim to have invented the bean cake in the 1980s!40
Many cookbook authors would add their own tips through the years. Lettice Bryan advised in The Kentucky Housewife in 1839 to harvest the peas “when full grown, and the pods just beginning to turn yellow; then they have their full flavor, and are perfectly tender, and may be shelled without difficulty.”41
But in just as many southern cookbooks, recipes for vegetables and fish are conspicuous in their absence. I am convinced that the cooks assumed that you would know the most important thing about both: don’t overcook them. Prior to the twentieth century, when rice is mentioned, it’s mostly in
Immediately after the Civil War, Mrs. Hill’s Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book appeared in
She also included her version of “Hopping John: Pick out the defective ones from a quart of dried peas; soak them several hours in tepid water; boil them with a chicken or piece of pickled pork until the peas are thoroughly done. In a separate stew-pan boil half as much rice dry; take the peas from the meat, mix them with the rice, fry a few minutes until dry. Season with salt and pepper.” 44
After the Civil War, however, much of the South was emasculated and poor. Many formerly wealthy landowners struggled on small plots of land, just like the African Americans. Coincidentally, industrialization and the modern railway system brought cheap canned and dried foods to areas where everyone had once eaten fresh, local produce. It was mostly after the war that simpler foods began to be embraced by the former gentry, when overcooked canned vegetables became the norm, when the South came to be defined as hog meat and hoe cake.
In summary, this is what we know: Field peas and rice came to
1. [Sarah Rutledge], The
2. Stephen Facciola, Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants (Vista, CA: Kampong Publications, 1998), 113, 350-351.
3. John Martin Taylor, “Karen and Me,” Gastronomica, Volume 7, Number 4 (Fall 2007).
4. Karen Hess, The
5. Hess, 98.
6. See Hess. Also, Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the
7. Hess, 36-64.
8. Caroline Howard Gilman, Recollections of a Southern Matron.
12. McCullers, 77.
14. See, especially, Carney, Black Rice.
15. John MartinTaylor, “
16. John Martin Taylor, Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 13.
17. John Martin Taylor, “Lowcountry Gold Rush,”
18. U. P. Hedrick, Ed. Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972), 597. One of the best of the modern horticultural dictionaries is Hortus Third by the Staff of the L. H. Bailey Hortorium at Cornell Unversity (New York: Macmillan General Reference, 1976).
19. See, for example, Elizabeth Schneider, Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference (
20. William Woys Weaver, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Growing, Seed Saving, and Cultural History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 151.
22. Schneider, 718.
23. Quoted in Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, Edited by Edwin Morris Betts (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc., 1999), 262.
24. Native American companion planting methods are well documented. For practical instructions, see Sally Jean Cunningham, Great Garden Companions (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, Inc., 1998).
25. Carney, Black Rice, 47.
26. Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (
27. From conversations with Cecilia Holland, my miller, who lives near
28. Dr. Merle Shepard at the Clemson Coastal Research and
29. See http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/86/.
30. Carney, In the Shadow of Slavery, 33.
31. Hess, xv, and in conversation and correspondence, with accompanying photograph taken of the dish in
32. See Carney, In the Shadow, 149; and Facciola, 113.
33. Weaver, 150-151.
34. Marion Cabell Tyree, Housekeeping in Old
35. Wikipedia has an excellent entry on eye dialect at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_dialect.
36. George William Bagby, “The Old Virginia Gentleman,” a lecture quoted in The Old Virginia Gentleman and Other Sketches, edited by Thomas Nelson Page (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910).
37. Tyree, 254.
38. Many old expressions such as this one are common in
39. Mary Randolph, The
41. Lettice Bryan, The
42. See Hess in
43. Annabella P. Hill, Mrs. Hill’s Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book. A facsimile with a biographical sketch and history notes by Damon L. Fowler (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), 179.
44. Hill, 196.
45. See, in particular, Charles Joyner, Down By the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 101-102.