South Carolina and Hoppin’ Johns

Dear Reader:

I think one would be hard ‘pressed’ to get much more southern than this title picture…taken straight from my table yesterday.

It is Dingle’s version of my idea of the best first meal of the New Year….hoppin’ johns of course (rice and beans) macaroni pie… just because I love it, string beans (as a sub for collards since I like string beans more) and corn bread. My My My!…life doesn’t get much better…add some sweet tea and pecan (pee-kahn pie) for dessert and that is just about as prosperous as I need to be. Life is good!

Like any good southerner we all grew up knowing that we would be eating hoppin’ johns and greens/cornbread on January 1. And if we ate enough greens to satisfy mom….then we were rewarded with a slice of her most delicious pee-kahn pie.)

Whether you say pee-cans or pee-kahns all depends on where you grew up …Lowcountry natives prefer pee-cans.…but upper South Carolina and eastern North Carolina (where I grew up) are all pee-kahn natives.) *From the map you can tell that we pee-kahn people are definitely in the majority in this country.

I have done a little history on the superstitions and predictions about eating hoppin’ johns and greens (with a little cornbread) on New Year’s Day before….but I never knew that our own South Carolina was right in there at the beginning of the story….as far back as pre-civil war days!

My great grandmother, who was a young Charleston, S.C., girl during the War Between the States, told this story about the name ‘Hoppin’ John.’ She said late during the War and after, Southern soldiers would come to the back door and ask for food. The only food available for the most part was rice and field peas formerly used for livestock fodder. These were mixed together in a large pot which the Southern women would bring to the kitchen door and say, ‘Okay, hop in, John [Johnny Reb].’ The poor starving soldier would reach in the pot and scoop out a handful of rice and beans [peas]. (Washington Post)

It’s also uncertain why the dish became associated with New Year’s and good luck. The most likely story is that slaves would often have the period between Christmas and New Year’s off, since no crops were growing at that time. Hoppin’ John was, and still is, often eaten with collard greens, which can resemble paper money, and “golden” cornbread. The peas themselves represent coins. Some families boost the potential of their Hoppin’ John by placing a penny underneath the dishes—or adding extra pork, which is thought to bring more luck.

Here are some excerpts from different South Carolina newspapers about this southern eating tradition to start each new year.

The black-eyed pea which is also known as the cow pea, is thought to have originated in North Africa. It has been eaten for centuries. Some say it was introduced in India 3000 years ago and was a staple of Greek and Roman diets.

The black-eye pea was introduced to the New World by Spanish explorers and African slaves and became a common food in the southern United States.

One of the most popular ways of preparing these peas is “Hoppin’ John”. It is a traditional African-American dish served on New Year’s Day for good luck. There are several theories of how “Hoppin’ John” got its name. One story attributes the name to the custom of inviting guests to eat with, “Hop in, John”. Another story is that it is derived from an old ritual on New Year’s day where the children of the house hopped once around the table before eating the dish. Whatever its origin, it was definitely a staple for many people in the South and remains important today.

Here’s the only detailed recipe for Hopping/Hoppin John, by that name, that I’ve seen in the pre-1865 period, from The Carolina Housewife, 1847:

Hopping John

One pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice. First put on the peas, and when half boiled, add the bacon. When the peas are well boiled, throw in the rice, which must be first washed and graveled. 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. Put a quart of water on the peas at first, and if it boils away too much, add a little more hot water. Season with salt and pepper, and, if liked, a sprig of green mint. In serving up, put the rice and peas first in the dish and the bacon on top.

The Carolina Housewife is known for having regional recipes, based on things the area was most famous for at the time, like peanuts or rice, that weren’t necessarily widespread yet.

Frederick Law Olmsted also mentioned “Hopping John” in connection with South Carolina, in 1855:

“…extensive communities on the banks of the Congaree, in South Carolina… Their chief sustenance is a porridge of cow-peas, and the greatest luxury with which they are acquainted is a stew of bacon and peas, with red pepper, which they call ‘Hopping John.’ “

A soldier writing to the Charleston Courier newspaper from “Camp Gadberry, John’s Island, Saturday, March 14, 1863″ mentioned “I see that it has been suggested for the different camps to plant vegetables, and I know of no place that is more suitable than our camp, especially for cow peas, as every one in the regiment dotes on Hopping John…” (Charleston Courier, March 18, 1863)


Throughout  a rich history of rice evolving into a staple crop in the lowcountry comes wonderful old stories that over the years gave us an excuse to make a mouth-watering meal on the first day of the new year….looking back on our history and forward to hope in our future.

So until tomorrow…For me this meal yesterday reminded me of by-gone days of my childhood with a family who always made sure we got started each New Year with the right foods for our physical needs and the right prayers for our spiritual ones. Thank you God for my family!

“Today is my favorite day”  Winnie the Pooh




About Becky Dingle

I was born a Tarheel but ended up a Sandlapper. My grandparents were cotton farmers in Laurens, South Carolina and it was in my grandmother’s house that my love of storytelling began beside an old Franklin stove. When I graduated from Laurens High School, I attended Erskine College (Due West of what?) and would later get my Masters Degree in Education/Social Studies from Charleston Southern. I am presently an adjunct professor/clinical supervisor at CSU and have also taught at the College of Charleston. For 28 years I taught Social Studies through storytelling. My philosophy matched Rudyard Kipling’s quote: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Today I still spread this message through workshops and presentations throughout the state. The secret of success in teaching social studies is always in the story. I want to keep learning and being surprised by life…it is the greatest teacher. Like Kermit said, “When you’re green you grow, when you’re ripe you rot.”
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2 Responses to South Carolina and Hoppin’ Johns

  1. bcparkison says:

    I’m bad about forgetting to do this as well as saying Rabbit on the first of the month.Can I make it up by doing it today?


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