9 Simple Questions About Hopping John

Everything you need to know about a Carolina icon for New Year's

Hopping John made with old-school red field peas and heirloom rice is sure to bring good fortune
Hopping John made with old-school red field peas and heirloom rice is sure to bring good fortune

By Robert F. Moss

With January 1st approaching, you’re probably hearing a lot about Hopping John, which everyone’s supposed to be dishing up for their family and friends to ring in the New Year. And maybe you have a few questions about this rather unusual Carolina dish. We have a few answers for you—nine of them, in fact.

1. What is Hopping John, Anyway?

Hopping John is a savory combination of rice and peas (black-eyed peas, in most modern versions, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) It’s traditionally served alongside collard greens on New Year’s Day in the Carolinas and, increasingly, in many other parts of the country, too.

Eating those two dishes together, it is claimed, will ensure prosperity in the upcoming year. You’ll often hear that the collards symbolize paper money (i.e. greenbacks) and the black-eyed peas represent coins. That’s always sounded a bit nutty to me, but people will believe all kinds of things, especially after a few glasses of champagne.

2. Where Did Hopping John Come From?

Culinary historian Karen Hess described Hopping John as “one of the bean pilaus of the African diaspora,” and its historical roots stretch ultimately to ancient Persia. A pilau (often spelled “perlo” or “purloo”) is a rice dish made via a specific cooking method, and both the word and technique spread from Persia across southern Europe and Africa.

The Lowcountry’s pilau is a cousin to Turkey’s pilaf and Spain’s paella, and that method of cooking rice was brought to the New World by enslaved Africans. The South Carolina’s version, called pilau, was originally made by washing and pre-soaking rice and then simmering it in a seasoned broth in an iron pot over a fire. As an essential final step, the rice was removed from direct heat and set aside on the coals to steam until the cooking liquid was fully absorbed and each grain stood out separate and distinct—a steaming technique that is quite different from the modern way of cooking rice.

South Carolinians often added chicken or shrimp to their pilaus, cooking the meat or seafood in the same pot with the rice. When beans or peas were used instead, the dish was called Hopping John. Similar bean pilaus can be found around the Western Hemisphere, for any country with a significant population of African descent developed its own distinctive variation, like Cuba’s Moros y Cristianos (black beans and rice) and Haiti’s Pois et Riz Collé (red beans and rice.) The Carolina version was typically made with the smaller red field peas that were grown by many enslaved families in their garden patches.

In the early decades of 19th century, field peas were adopted by farmers across the South as a rotation crop to replenish soil depleted by tobacco, corn, and cotton. A remarkable number of varieties—white lady peas, Sea Island red peas, iron peas, clay peas, black-eyed peas—were introduced, and because their dried stalks made excellent livestock fodder, they were often generically called “cow peas”. Around this time pea dishes like Hopping John crossed over from being something eaten primarily by enslaved African Americans to a dish that appeared on the dinner tables of Black and white residents of all classes.

3. Where Did It Get That Funny Name?

The short answer is, “no one knows,” but that hasn’t prevented any number of jokers from taking a guess at it. Most of the explanations you’ll find in books or online are examples of what Karen Hess termed, “pop etymology of a low order.”

An alarming number involve demeaning stereotypes, like a crippled African American man named John hopping around in anticipation of a meal. Equally silly is the notion that the name comes from “Hop in, John,” which is supposedly how Carolinians invite guests to start eating. There’s just one small problem with that theory: nobody in South Carolina actually says that.

It’s clear that whoever came up with such tales simply took the two words and guessed why someone might have applied them to a dish of peas and rice. More serious scholars, unfortunately, haven’t done much better. Some argue that the term is a corruption of the French pois a pigeon (meaning "pigeon peas") or of the combination of kachang, a Malay word for peas, and bhat, the Hindi term for cooked rice. But these are still speculations based solely upon the sound of the words and their proponents offer no historical evidence that the supposed parent phrases were ever applied to the dish.

In other words, no one knows.

4. Should You Spell It With or Without a “G” on the End?

Always with a “g”, please. Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, the dish is always spelled in print as “Hopping John.” It didn’t start routinely being spelled “hoppin’” until the 1960s, around the same time that The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw first aired.

5. Should You Capitalize “Hopping”?

Totally up to you. John might be a proper name and perhaps should be capitalized, but there’s no historical consensus on that, nor on the hopping part. We aren’t even sure there was an actual John involved (see #3 above.)

6. When Did Hopping John Become a New Year’s Staple?

Though the recipe dates back to the Colonial era, the tradition of eating Hopping John on New Year’s Day arrived a good bit later.

I’ve not found any accounts that link Hopping John specifically with New Year’s Day before the 20th century, but in some parts of the antebellum South eating field peas (though not necessarily with rice) was thought to bring luck in the upcoming year. Several formerly enslaved people mention it in interviews for the Federal Writers Project, including William McWhorter of Georgia, who recalled that New Year’s Day was “the hardest day of the whole year.” It marked the end of the brief Christmas holiday, and many overseers were determined to drive workers as hard as they could on their first day back in the fields. The day, however, “ended off with a big pot of cornfield peas and hog jowl to eat for luck. That was supposed to be a sign of plenty too.”

By the turn of the 20th century, Charlestonians had extended the linkage between New Year’s luck and field peas to the rice and pea dish called Hopping John. In October 1907, The “Quality Shop” grocery store advertised that it had just received the first cowpea shipment of the season and added, “It isn’t New Year’s yet, but this old Southern dish is always hailed with delight.” Two years later, the Charleston Evening Post reported that members of the Hibernian Society had gathered to share, “The New Year’s hopping-john, a dish of cowpeas, bacon and rice that invariably gives good luck for the whole year to those who eat it on New Years day.”

Over a century later, the Hibernian Society still greets the new year with a Hopping John dinner, and so do many others in Charleston and far beyond.

7. What’s the Wrong Way to Make Hopping John?

Modern versions of Hoppin' John layer black-eyed peas over white rice
Modern versions of Hoppin' John layer black-eyed peas over white rice (Tavallai via Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0)

If you follow a lot of modern recipes for Hopping John, you may be baffled that anyone would consider themselves lucky while eating such a bland, uninspiring mess. Far too many “quick and easy” versions would have you open a can of seasoned black-eyed peas and dump the contents over a bed of cooked white rice. You might as well dump them, quick and easy, straight in the garbage.

Other recipes try to chef it up a bit. You start with dried black-eyed peas, not canned, and you simmer them in homemade chicken stock and spike them with onions, garlic, bacon or smoked sausage, and all sorts of savory herbs. If you use enough of the latter you might be able to goose enough flavor into the pot to make it palatable, but mixing black-eyed peas and commodity white rice creates a fundamentally insipid dish.

8. So What’s the Right Way to Make Hopping John?

Good red field or cow peas and rice like Carolina Gold are essential for proper Hopping John
Good red field or cow peas and rice like Carolina Gold are essential for proper Hopping John

The problem with modern Hopping John is a matter of technique as well as ingredients, and not because the modern recipes aren’t fancy enough. Indeed, the original 19th century version is about as simple as it gets: a pound of bacon, a pint of peas, and a pint of uncooked rice. Here’s how it appears in Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina Housewife (1847), the first known printed recipe:

First put on the peas, and when half boiled, add the bacon. When the peas are well boiled, throw in the rice, which must first be washed and gravelled. When the rice has been boiling half an hour, take the pot off the fire and put it on coals to steam, as in boiling rice alone.

Note that all the ingredients are cooked together in a single pot: an important detail. And the peas and bacon are cooked first and uncooked rice added later to the same savory broth.

But even if you follow Mrs. Rutledge’s instructions to the letter, you will likely end up disappointed. In part that’s because the brief instructions assume a lot of prior knowledge on how to properly cook rice. Equally problematic are the ingredients, for each of the three components has been altered and degraded by our modern industrial food system.

The rice 19th century cooks would have used would have been a medium-grained variety like the famed Carolina Gold, which had a delicate texture and clean, sweet flavor. The bacon would have been salt cured for weeks and hung for several days in a smokehouse, making it intensely smoky and flavorful and quite unlike modern commodity bacon, which is brine-injected, flash-smoked, and packed for shipping in less than a day.

Even more different are the peas. Black-eyed peas are never called for in 19th century Hopping John recipes, but they began to be substituted for field peas in the 20th century, especially as cooks migrated outside the South and had to make due with whatever peas they could find. (In 1929, the Seattle Daily Times noted, “Cow peas are well known to southerners although they are unobtainable in other parts of the country.”) As commodity black-eyed peas began to eclipse older field pea varieties in the South, a lot of Carolinians began using them in Hopping John, too.

Unfortunately, black-eyed peas behave quite differently in the pot than traditional cowpeas, which have a rich, meaty flavor and hold up well to long, slow cooking. Whether dried or canned, commodity black-eyed peas turn to mush if you cook them too long. That’s why most 20th century “Hoppin’ John” recipes call for cooking the rice and peas separately and combining them at serving time. That keeps the ingredients from disintegrating, but the rice doesn’t absorb the rich flavor of the peas’ bacon-laced pot liquor. To compensate, modern recipes typically call for adding a lot of aromatics and herbs in a futile effort to breathe a little life back into a sad, soulless combination.

Fortunately, you can now mail order Carolina Gold rice and Sea Island Red Peas from purveyors like Anson Mills, and they’re increasingly available in Carolina supermarkets, too. (Look for the local products section.) Add in some old-fashioned long-smoked bacon from artisanal producers like Benton’s or Edwards and you have a recipe for success.

And be sure to cook it all in a single pot.

9. Do You Have a Recipe for Old-School Hopping John?

Why, yes I do!

Recipe: Traditional Lowcountry Hopping John

1 cup dried Sea Island red peas or cowpeas

1/2 pound (approx. 5 slices) good smoky bacon

1 cup uncooked Carolina Gold rice

Salt and pepper to taste


Put the peas in a bowl and cover with several inches of water. Allow to soak overnight (or at least four hours), then drain.

Put the peas in a heavy casserole or dutch oven and add 1 quart of water. Put on the stove over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, add the bacon, and season with salt and pepper. Simmer uncovered until peas are tender and thoroughly done, approximately 30 to 45 minutes.

Rinse the rice in three changes of water and drain, then stir into the pot with the peas and bacon. Raise heat if need to return the liquid to a simmer, then lower heat and simmer uncovered approximately 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the rice from sticking to the pot. If the rice starts to dry out or stick, add a little hot water, 1/2 cup at a time.

While the rice is cooking, preheat the oven to its lowest warm setting. When the rice grains are soft, remove the pot from the heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and place in the oven to “soak” at least 15 minutes, though you can keep the pot warm for up to an hour before serving.

At serving time, remove the pot from the oven, spoon the rice and beans into a large serving bowl, and place the pieces of bacon over the top.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.