Hoppin’ John: Measuring Years of Good Luck

Hoppin’ John: Measuring Years of Good Luck

Hoppin’ John: Measuring Years of Good Luck 1920 1531 Christina Simon

Some say an old, hobbled man called Hoppin‘ John became known for selling peas and rice on the streets of Charleston. Others say slave children hopped around the table in eager anticipation of the dish. Most food historians think the name derives from a French term for dried peas, “pois pigeons.” 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.  (History.com)

Most Sunday afternoons, Grandma Burney would still be wearing her starched pale blue work uniform with her first name, “June,” embroidered above the pocket, as if to brand her permanently as a maid. I was about seven, old enough to know the uniform meant something, but exactly what I couldn’t quite figure out. All I knew was that she worked for a rich white family in Beverly Hills. And that she was a wonderful cook. She cooked out of necessity and love, wearing the fragrant scents from her kitchen like perfume. She and my grandfather, a gardener who didn’t talk much, lived in a tidy yellow and white Craftsman bungalow in South Los Angeles. They were my only grandparents.

On the way to Grandma Burney’s from our house in Venice, Randy’s gigantic doughnut was a sign we were getting close. Palm trees gave their blue-collar neighborhood a majestic quality, lining the streets with their slender brown trunks, some as tall as eighty feet. Inside, the house smelled of simmering black-eyed peas, tangy collard greens and sweet peach cobbler. Soul food that migrated with them from their impoverished Joplin, Missouri roots. My maternal grandmother was dark-skinned with a huge personality that fit her ample body. “Baby girl,” she would call me. “The boss’s house has twenty rooms and nobody lives in most of them,” she said, her voice booming and her eyes twinkling behind her cat-eye glasses. “But I clean those rooms anyway, even the toilets.” Then, she changed into a house dress, put on her apron and started chopping ingredients for Hoppin’ John—her meal for Sundays and for good luck on New Year’s Day.

Grandma Burney’s Hoppin’ John came from her pantry, its flavor from the warmth of her heart. She cooked from memory, with a dash of this and a pinch of that, handed down, she told me, from her mother back in Missouri. She chopped onions, garlic and celery and soon my eyes would water until tears were running down my face. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve, standing on my tiptoes watching her cook. I knew she was tired from her day job because she changed into slippers and shifted her weight from side to side. But she always took time to instruct me on how to wash the celery, remove hidden dirt from collard greens and pick pebbles from the dry black-eyed peas. I longed to be like her, somebody who could turn hard, cold, oddly shaped things from the store into warm, fragrant dinners.

I hated the slimy, raw ham hocks Grandma Burney unwrapped from the butcher’s paper. Heavy and pinkish-red laced with streaks of yellowish fat, the thick bone looked like the pig’s leg should still be attached to it. “Shush,” she would say when I made a face and backed away. “This is where the goodness is.” After they had slow-cooked, we would use our fingers and a fork to strip the tender pink meat off the bone. Then she would chop it into small pieces, discarding big chunks of fat. We would toss the meat back into the pot. I never saw her throw away the bones.

For Christmas, Grandma Burney’s employer gave her big bottles of Scotch. She kept them in a tall glass cabinet filled with gleaming bottles of amber liquid and crystal decanters half-full. I would sit properly on the white, plastic-covered sofa in the living room, my feet dangling, not quite touching the floor, watching her mix a drink. My little sister would lie on her stomach, too close to the small television, fixated on Scooby Doo—a forbidden treat because we didn’t have a television at home. The Nancy Drew books my mother, a teacher, brought for us stayed untouched in the bag. I still remember the feeling of wearing shorts on a hot summer day, feeling the sticky, squeaky plastic under my legs as I pulled my knees up to my chin to dry the sweat that beaded between my legs and the plastic. Grandma Burney said when company came over she removed the covering.

The last time I saw my grandmother I was twelve years old. I remember Grandma Burney hustled my sister and me into the back seat of her shiny blue Buick for a ride to the store. As we rounded the corner, we slid from side to side in the back seat because back then nobody wore seatbelts. We giggled because the fast and furious way Grandma Burney drove was fun, like a roller coaster. Somehow, my mom found out about her mother’s erratic driving and accused Grandma Burney of driving drunk with us in the car. We never saw my beloved grandmother again, no matter how many times we begged my mother to change her mind.

Grandma Burney died of liver failure when I was in college. I still miss her mischievous smile and her outstretched arms gathering me close for one of her enormous hugs. When my relationship with Grandma Burney was abruptly severed, my consumption of soul food ended. My parents were vegan, and they had rejected Grandma Burney’s cooking long before the driving incident. My mom made stir-fried tofu and brown rice, topped with seaweed and grated carrots. Eating a dish with ham hocks at Grandma Burney’s house on Sundays had been my secret. Our secret. Some grandmothers give their grandkids too much candy and say, “Don’t tell your parents.” Grandma Burney fed me black-eyed peas with ham hocks and I never told anybody.

What kind of African American woman was I if I couldn’t make a single soul food dish? As soon as I had my first child, I longed to find a culinary tradition for my young family, a food that connected me to my grandmother and honored our ancestors who were slaves. I didn’t have any tattered, hand-me-down recipes or cookbooks with handwritten notes lovingly scribbled in the margins. I had never bought collard greens. I had never tried to make a pie or cobbler. Jambalaya was something I ordered at Harold and Belle’s, the upscale soul food restaurant in South Los Angeles. I needed to learn how to cook the cuisine, but I was afraid that part of my childhood was gone forever, buried alongside Grandma Burney. I felt like an imposter, too ashamed to ask my black girlfriends to teach me a few dishes. Even worse, I was failing to pass down food from our proud heritage to my daughter. As a frazzled corporate professional with a two young kids, I was an occasional cook who could barely make the basics: roast chicken, spaghetti and other simple dishes that were hard to ruin. A lot of nights my husband and I ate takeout. I subscribed to Gourmet Magazine because I liked looking at the elaborate creations I could never make.

The ten ingredients listed in Gourmet’s Hoppin’ John recipe were available at Ralph’s, the Southern California grocery chain. They had been there right in front of me all along.  Humble foods for those who knew what to look for.

There was nothing instinctive about my first try at cooking the legendary dish. Determined but shaky, I strained the black eyed peas that I quick-soaked, using the instructions on the back of the bag, and sorted them to remove any small rocks. Then, I selected one of my very sharp Wusthof knives, a wedding gift, to chop onions, celery and garlic and a hot jalapeno chile. I lacked the rhythmic cadence of Grandma Burney’s knife skills which resulted in diced pieces exactly the same size.  I pulled out a bay leaf, opened the cans of chicken stock, sliced the sausage into big chunks and put a pot of rice on the stove. I stayed close to the recipe, using exact measurements and setting a timer to ensure I didn’t over-cook it. I adjusted and re-adjusted the heat too many times. Up and down, I kept fiddling with the knob, watching the flame jump then disappear, finally settling on medium-high as instructed.

The bubbling stew was beginning to look like the black-eyed peas I remembered from Grandma Burney’s kitchen. But it had been a long time. Maybe I was mistaken. I had no idea if she used a jalapeno chile, a bay leaf or even coriander. She might have used a bell pepper instead. I had watched her make her own chicken broth using a whole bird, something I never considered doing. She taught me to rinse the starch from the white rice, but I skipped that step. And I replaced the ham hocks she treated like prize ingredients with with pre-cooked kielbasa sausage. I put the lid on and waited.

After twenty minutes, I lifted the lid and stared through the rising steam in disbelief. There it was. Softened peas, their black eyes peeking out of the pot, some whole, others so tender they were broken, mingled with softened pieces of onion and celery. The stew bubbled in a light-colored broth, chunks of flavorful red sausage nestled amongst the peas, creating a thick gravy. Giving it a dusting of chopped coriander, I tasted it hesitatingly, a tiny bite on a spoon. I was ready to toss it in the trash if it didn’t come out right. “This might taste terrible,” I warned my husband. A final check for seasoning. All it needed was a bit more salt. Carefully, I measured ¼ a teaspoon and added it to the pot. It wasn’t the disaster I had feared. I removed the bay leaf and spooned two huge helpings over steaming hot white rice. It was delicious, hearty and filled with flavor. “Next time, I might add more sausage,” I told my husband. “It’s really good, the only thing I’d do next time is double the recipe,” he said. We ate leftovers the next day.

Grandma Burney would have loved my house in Beverly Hills, a big two-story wood and glass modern with a granite kitchen and canyon views. It sits on a narrow street shaded by oak and palm trees, with hot pink bougainvillea giving the neighborhood a burst of color. My dad said it’s not too far from the mansion where, for three decades, she came and went through the service entrance. If only she had lived long enough to steer her Buick up our steep driveway on Sunday afternoons, ready to enjoy a lifestyle she had only glimpsed from underneath the stiff fabric of a maid’s uniform. I imagine she would be amused at the irony of life’s circumstances. And proud. Like I was of her. She, who introduced me to Hoppin’ John, the grandmother who taught me what soul food was, but who never had the chance to finish our culinary lessons. She, whose force of personality still calls my name. At last, we could cook together again. Grandma Burney would scoff lovingly at my fancy Gourmet recipe, sighing and shaking her head when she saw I used pre-made sausage. She might even bring her own ham hocks. Tying on an apron, she would commandeer the kitchen, delighted at the six-burner stove and double oven. My teenage daughter and I would eagerly serve as her sous-chefs.

Pot after pot of Hoppin’ John, I have measured the years of good luck. Weekends spent cooking alongside Grandma Burney. Graduating from college. Earning a master’s degree. Getting married. Buying our first house. Paying off our student loans. Giving birth to my daughter, then a son. Getting jobs. Quitting jobs.  Purchasing our forever home. Milestones of life anchored by a recipe with an unknown origin. After a while, I felt confident making black-eyed peas, so I sent out invitations to a group of friends and tripled the recipe. We sat around the television on New Year’s Day eating from big white bowls and cheering for our favorite football teams. The gathering is now an annual tradition. I’ve even made the dish for African American History Month at my kids’ school, filling huge tin trays with the stew and dropping it off at the multi-purpose room, with a note on top of the covered trays, telling the volunteers to serve it piping hot. These days, I make Hoppin’ John whenever I miss Grandma Burney. A few times a year, I bring out my big pot when my daughter says, “Can you make Hoppin’ John?” “Sure,” I say, secretly thrilled.  “You never had a chance to meet Grandma Burney, but if she were here, she would teach you how to make her version of Hoppin’ John.”

Header photo © Nnebuifé Kwubéi.

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