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A rice and bean pilaf (with Carolina Gold rice and field peas, traditionally) seasoned with pork, hoppin’ John is a one-pot peasant dish with a long history. Its exact origin is murky, not surprisingly, but it’s generally agreed that its components came from West Africa, where the beans in question are native (see also: binch, Sierra Leone); most likely they were brought to North America by slaves centuries ago. (As one story tells it, field peas, aka cowpeas, were brought from Africa to add nitrogen to the soil, and for years were used mostly as fertilizer and animal feed; in South Carolina they became known as Sea Island red peas, now an heirloom pea regaining popularity among Charleston chefs.)
Since both rice and legumes proved good matches for Carolina soil—and were cheap to produce—it is probable that the slaves who cultivated these crops in South Carolina were also cooking with them for their fellow countrymen, creating a dish that eventually moved out of the slaves’ kitchens.
Nowadays, hoppin’ John is traditionally eaten for good luck on New Year’s Day in Charleston (and elsewhere in the South), along with collard greens and cornbread, which either symbolize money—coins (the beans), paper money (the greens), and gold (the cornbread)—or faith (the pork), hope (the hoppin’ John), and money (the greens). It might not make you rich, but you can, fortunately, find this tasty historic dish on menus at other times of the year, too.
Good to know: There are many tales of how this dish got its name. The one we were told by Terry McGray of Dave’s Carry-Out, below, was that a soldier, being chased by Confederates in Charleston’s own Battery, knocked on a stranger’s door and begged to enter. The woman, who was making a big pot of rice and beans, said, “Sure, hop on in.”
Where: Family-run, local-favorite corner shop Dave’s Carry-Out Seafood (843-577-7943; 42 Morris St., map) isn’t much to look at—a spare room with a few small tables, a TV, and a large counter behind which you can watch the kitchen at work—but it’s locally beloved for its fried-to-order food and intimate, ripe-for-story-telling atmosphere.
When: Tues-Fri, 11:30pm-3pm; Tues-Sat, 5pm-11pm (but the place tends to stay open later). Hoppin’ John is typically served here on Thursdays.
Order: Get the hoppin’ John, of course ($2 as a side, or can be included in a platter), but despite it being satisfying—a simple affair of soft rice studded with porky bits and red field peas (because black-eyed peas are merely a “shortcut,” according to Terry)—you don’t come here just for this dish. You come for this alongside a big Styrofoam platter of fresh, delicately fried local shrimp, scallops, or flounder (or pork chop, which goes particularly well with the meaty lima beans and rice) and maybe a stuffed “devil crab” for good measure.
Alternatively: You’ll usually find hoppin’ John (or “field peas over jasmine rice,” with meat) on the sides menu at Virginia’s on King (412 King St., map) downtown. Also look for this in the city’s excellent soul-food cafes, like Martha Lou’s Kitchen (843-577-9583; 1068 Morrison Dr., map) and Bertha’s Kitchen (843-554-6519; 2332 Meeting Street Rd., map), where it’s likely to show up on Thursdays.
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