Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Time for Hoppin’ John — or at least black-eyed peas

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Black-eyed peas are not so easy to find here, but they are a Southern necessity for New Year’s Day. I usually just cooked them as a bean dish, though drained black-eyed peas are the basis for Texas caviar (of which there are many versions — here’s mine and here’s another version, also mine).

The name “Hoppin’ John” seems to have arisen as a mondegreen of the Haitian French “Pois Pigeon” (PWAH pee SHAWN) — say it aloud and you can hear how a non-French speaker with a lazy ear could find “Hoppin John” in it. And the true Hoppin’ John of the old South is no longer available because of the way foods have been debased to facilitate industrial production — this article explains it well. From the article:

If you try to cook Sarah Rutledge’s recipe for Hoppin’ John using bacon, rice, and black-eyed peas from the supermarket, you’re probably going to be pretty disappointed. Today’s ingredients have been transformed by a century of hybridization, mechanization, and standardization to meet the demands of an industrialized, cost-minimizing food system.

As we’ve already seen, Southern stone-ground cornmeal was replaced by hybridized corn picked unripe, air-dried, and bashed to powder by steel roller mills, forcing cooks to add sugar to cornbread to simulate its former sweetness. Tomatoes are bred to be as indestructible as racket balls, and they’re picked green, shipped to supermarkets across the country, and get a good zap of ethylene gas so they arrive perfectly round, bright red, and flavorless. Heirloom breeds of pigs, with meat so red it’s almost purple and marbled with thick layers of fat, gave way to lean, factory-raised American Yorkshire engineered to pass as white meat.

All three of the main ingredients in Hoppin’ John have suffered a similar fate. Let’s start with the bacon. Not only are the breeds the pork bellies come from different, but so is the way those bellies are treated.

The Bacon

In the old days, salt and smoke were used to preserve the meat, which cured for weeks and then was smoked for two days or more. Today’s commodity bacon is processed in less than a day: brine-injected, flash-smoked, and packed for shipping.

The Rice

The original Hoppin’ John was made with the famed Carolina Gold rice, a non-aromatic long-grained variety prized for its lush and delicate flavor. But that rice was ill-suited for modern agriculture. The Lowcountry tidal swamps were too soft to support mechanical harvesters, and the rice required far too much manual labor to be viable in the post-Emancipation world. A hurricane in 1911 effectively finished off the industry in the Carolinas, and American rice production shifted to Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, where planters grew new hybridized varieties on dry ground.

The new rice varieties are mechanically processed—heat-dried, polished, and degerminated. They aren’t nearly as nutty and flavorful as the old Carolina Gold and not nearly as nutritious, either, since the processing strips away all of the bran and germ. Until well after World War II, much of rural South Carolina still depended on a diet heavy on rice and beans, but that rice was the new kind brought in from the Gulf regions. During the winter months when fresh produce was unavailable, rural South Carolinians started suffering from malnutrition due to lack of proteins and nutrients. A 1956 law required that all rice sold in the state be enriched with the very vitamins and minerals that mechanical processing had stripped away.

The Peas

Finally, let’s address the thorniest issue: the peas. It’s a hard to know out exactly when black-eyed peas started being used in Hoppin’ John, for people have tended to use the terms cowpeas, field peas, black-eyed peas interchangeably. All these beans (they’re technically beans, not peas) belong to the species Vigna unguiculata, and they’re often called “crowder peas” because of the way the beans crowd together in the pod.

Red cowpeas have a black-eye in the center just like their paler cousins, so they can be referred to as “red black-eyed peas.” To complicate matters, in the 19th century there were any number of landrace and cross-bred varieties, often unique to just one or two family’s fields. These included the Sea Island Red Pea, which was once a key rotation crop on the Sea Island just south of Charleston but whose production was abandoned when rice growing ended.

As Adrian Miller relates in Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate as a Time (2013), black-eyed peas spread more widely than other cowpea varieties. They were eaten throughout the South by both blacks and whites alike, but they were looked down on as poor-people food and were slow to take on in the north. For most of the 20th century, the navy bean was preferred by most northern shoppers, except for the African-Americans who had arrived during the Great Migration. Miller posits that these expatriate Southerners ended up substituting black-eye peas the traditional red peas in Hoppin’ John because the red versions weren’t available outside of the Carolinas.

The two peas aren’t the same. Old-fashioned red cowpeas are firmer than black-eyed peas and have a deep, rich flavor that can only be described as “meaty.” You walk a fine line when preparing dried commodity black-eyes: cook them too briefly and they’ll be unpleasantly crunchy in the middle; cook them too long and they turn to mush. You don’t have that problem with red cowpeas, for their texture holds up well, staying firm and chewy even with long, slow cooking.

Read the whole article — it’s informative and interesting — and note the conclusion:

Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills sells Carolina Gold rice online, and he has worked with farmers in the Lowcountry to cultivate heirloom beans and peas, too, including Sea Island Red Peas. A few smokehouse operators like Benton’s in Madisonville, Tennessee, and Edwards of Surry, Virginia, were still practicing their craft quietly out in the countryside, and their rich, deeply-smoky products have been rediscovered by chefs and home cooks alike.

So, for this New Year’s Day, try to get your hands on some Sea Island Red Peas, Carolina Gold rice, and some good old-fashioned smoky bacon. Cook them together in the same pot until the grains of rice and the peas stand separate and apart, the rice dyed a purplish-red hue from the peas. I can’t guarantee it will bring you more money in 2015, but you’ll certainly enjoy true riches on your plate.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2020 at 6:15 pm

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