Hoppin’ to the New Year!
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Written by Sarah Beck, 2023-2024 Food-Inspired Resilience and Equity Intern for the N.C. Cooperative Extension – Lee County Center
The New Year always comes with celebrations, future goals and resolutions, and many different cultural food traditions. It’s a time to be with loved ones, reflect on the past year, dream for the next year, and share delicious meals with one another. Here, in the U.S. South, the Hoppin’ John dish is a classic meal to ring in the New Year. If you’re like me, you might be wondering: where did Hoppin’ John come from, and why do we eat it each year?
Hoppin’ John is known to bring good luck, and even good health, to those who eat it around the holiday. Although there are slight variations in how it’s prepared, there are some common ingredients that symbolize different types of luck and prosperity in the New Year. The dish is usually a combination of rice, ham or bacon, and black-eyed peas. One of the staple ingredients, black-eyed peas, is meant to symbolize an abundance of coins in the New Year. Some families include tomatoes in their recipes, which are meant to bring good health. Collards and cornbread are traditionally served on the side of Hoppin’ John. Collards with their green hue, are meant to represent dollar bills, and cornbread, with its yellow hue, is meant to bring gold. If you want even more good fortune in the New Year, some people say to leave three black-eyed peas on your plate to secure luck, wealth, and romance. Many refer to the dish as “Skippin’ Jenny” when the leftovers are eaten a couple of days after New Year’s.
The origins of Hoppin’ John are important to understand, as many of the dish’s ingredients are rooted in African foodways. The rice and black-eyed peas that are eaten in America were domesticated in West Africa and forcefully brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade. Rice, in particular, became a popular crop because of the climate in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, combined with the agricultural knowledge of enslaved people. Black-eyed peas also grew well under these socio-environmental conditions. The plant has a high resistance to heat, making it very reliable in the South, and enslaved peoples were experts in its cultivation. Varieties of the Hoppin’ John dish we know today were likely eaten by enslaved peoples across the South, especially in the Lowcountry. While it is not completely understood how the dish became connected to New Year’s luck, enslaved people likely ate Hoppin’ John during the period of time between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It is important to recognize this painful history while hoping for prosperity in the New Year.
The origins of the name “Hoppin’ John” are also somewhat of a mystery. One theory is that the name comes from an old Southern saying, “Hop in, John,” which was used to invite a friend or neighbor to dinner. Others say it originates from the French-Haitian name for the pigeon pea (pois à pigeon), which is similar to the black-eyed pea. This is a mystery that will likely remain unsolved!
While Hoppin’ John has been a culinary tradition for generations in the U.S. South, “las doce uvas de la suerte” (twelve lucky grapes) was globally popularized on TikTok recently. This New Year’s tradition is typically celebrated across Spain, Latin America, and South America. The goal is to eat one grape for each of the twelve-clock chimes at midnight. Each grape represents one of the 12 months of the New Year. If you can finish before the clock stops ringing, you are said to have good luck for the rest of the year. Similar to Hoppin’ John, the origins of this now global superstition are unknown. Some attribute it to the Alicante region of Spain, where it is speculated that winemakers started the activity as a way to sell surplus grapes. Others think that there was a French influence, as they were known for drinking champagne and eating grapes in the New Year starting in the late 1800s.
Hoppin’ John and “twelve lucky grapes” are just two of the many New Year’s culinary traditions that communities across the world use to ring in the coming year. For more information contact N.C. Cooperative Extension in Lee County at (919) 775-5624.
Sarah Beck is the Food-Inspired Resilience and Equity Intern for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.