Black-eyed peas, a species of the cowpea, are thought to have originated in North Africa, where they have been eaten for centuries. The peas may have been introduced into India as long as 3,000 years ago. They were also a staple of Greek and Roman diets. They are a legume, a pale, cream-colored bean with a black spot. Purple hull peas are another variation. The purple hull pea is light green with a pinkish spot.
Black-eyed peas were probably introduced to the New World by Spanish explorers and African slaves, and they have become a much-loved food, especially in the Southern US. They can be found dried, fresh, canned, and frozen. The flavorful peas are used to make all kinds of dishes, including soups, salads, and casseroles. They can also be puréed or sprouted.
One of the more popular ways of cooking black-eyed peas is the dish called "Hoppin' John," a traditional African-American dish served on New Year's day for good luck. The peas in the dish are thought to symbolize coins, while the pork means prosperity. Served with greens—for paper money—and cornbread—for gold—it is a meal of hope for the coming year.
There are almost as many theories as to how Hoppin' John got its name as there are ways to cook the dish. One story attributes the name to the custom of inviting guests to eat with, "Hop in, John." Another suggestion is that it is derived from an old ritual on New Year's Day in which the children of the house hopped once around the table before eating the dish. Whatever its origin, it was a staple for many in the early South and remains an important dish today.
The following is a typical recipe for Hoppin' John adapted from Kwanzaa, An African-American Celebration of Culture And Cooking, by Eric V. Copage.
If you're up to the challenge, you might try adding the rice to the black-eyed pea mixture. If not, you might do as the recipe suggests, "cheat" and cook the rice separately, then combine the two at serving time.
The dish is quite versatile. Use ham or sliced spicy smoked sausage in the dish instead of the bulk sausage.
Basic Hoppin' John
- 1 pound dried black-eyed peas
- 1 pound bulk pork sausage (mild or hot)
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
- 1 cup diced bell pepper, red, green, or combination (optional)
- 2 cloves garlic (minced)
- 2 quarts water
- 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (divided)
- 4 cups chicken stock, vegetable broth, or beef stock, low sodium (homemade or purchased)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3 cups long-grain white rice
- Put the dried black-eyed peas in a large saucepan or Dutch oven; cover with water and place the pan over high heat. Bring the peas and water to a boil and continue boiling for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. Alternatively, you may soak the peas overnight with enough cold water to cover by 3 inches.
- Drain the peas and set aside.
- In a 5-quart Dutch oven or stockpot over medium heat, cook the sausage, onion, bell pepper, and garlic for about 10 minutes, stirring to break up the sausage. Pour off the excess fat.
- Add the drained peas, 2 quarts of water, and red and black ground peppers. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, covered, until the peas are tender, or about 1 1/4 hours. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over high heat, bring the broth, butter, and remaining 1 teaspoon of kosher salt to a boil. Add the rice, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, covered, until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, or about 20 minutes. Alternatively, you may cook the rice in a rice cooker.
- Fluff the rice with a fork and transfer it to a serving bowl.
- Pour the peas over the rice, mix well, and serve immediately with freshly baked cornbread.