Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star-Ledger

As luck would have it, black-eyed peas

Could you use a little luck? Then hop on over to the grocery store before it closes for the holiday, and get yourself a package of black-eyed peas. You won’t be able to make a lucky dish of hoppin’ John without them.

Traditionally eaten down south, particularly in the Carolinas, on New Years’ Day to ensure good fortune in the months ahead, hoppin’ John is a variation of the rice-and-bean dishes made throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Its peculiar name may be a corruption of pois pigeons, the French Creole term for the essential ingredient.

“I always looked forward to it, going home for the holidays. My grandparents made it,” said Hilton Reynolds, a native of North Carolina and head cook at Je’s in Newark, where a side dish of black-eyed peas seasoned with onion and cooked in chicken stock often accompanies the fried catfish and chicken. Customarily flavored with ham hock, salt pork or bacon, hoppin’ John may be embellished in health-conscious kitchens with smoked turkey instead. Technically neither peas nor beans, its legumes are sold fresh in the southern states. Here up north, it’s easiest to find black-eyed peas in frozen, canned or dried form. Frozen ones work well when time is tight, said Reynolds, but he prefers the depth of flavor that comes from the dried. Lucky for the cook, professional or not, black-eyed peas require less soaking than most dried beans–about an hour, said Reynolds. And preparing them is no strain, either. “The smell alone will let you know when they’re ready. They have a nice aroma to them,” he said.

Like many dishes based on humble ingredients, hoppin’ John was born of hard times. Native to Africa, black-eyed peas — properly called Southern peas or cowpeas — were brought to the Americas with the slave trade in the late 17th century. (They get their common name from the distinctive black spot at their hilum, or inner curve.) In his 19th-century travelogue, “A Journey to the Seaboard Slave States,” the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park and Essex County’s Brookdale Park, wrote of the people he observed, “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.’”

High in fiber, calcium, vitamin A, folic acid and magnesium, and a good source of protein, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, potassium and zinc, black-eyed peas became a dietary staple in the American south and were credited with saving the people of Vicksburg, Miss., from starvation during the Civil War Battle of Vicksburg, when that town was under siege for 40 days. Black-eyed peas have a long history of nourishing simple folk struggling to survive in other parts of the world as well. Annibale Carracci’s 16th-century painting “Il Mangiatore di Fagioli” (“The Bean Eater”), housed in Rome’s Galleria Colonna, shows a European peasant supping on a bowl of black-eyed peas accompanied by a bit of bread.

Some maintain that the food’s association with the lowly is precisely why eating it brings luck. Such a repast, goes their reasoning, tricks the devil into thinking he shouldn’t waste his time meddling with someone already in a sorry state. “Eat poor on New Year’s Day, eat rich the rest of the year,” goes an old Southern saying.

To others, the little cowpeas symbolize coins, and if they’re prepared with collard greens — the color of money — so much the better. In some households, the cook will bury a real coin in a dish of hoppin’ John, with even more luck to accrue to the individual who finds it amid his or her portion (presumably before swallowing it).

Despite hoppin’ John’s modest lineage, it’s not uncommon for 21st-century New Year’s revelers to savor a spoonful of the dish right along with their midnight Champagne to guarantee good times ahead. In these meager times, such a strategy is likely to pay off as well as any.