As a cook who is rarely happier than when roasting a huge joint of meat, I tend to measure out my year in holiday feasts, the same meals every year. Christmas dinner means goose; New Year’s Eve, rib roast and Yorkshire pudding; Easter, leg of lamb. I sometimes try my hand at odd holidays like Diwali and Nowruz just because — holiday food is always festive and is always an excuse for a party. Christmas Eve tends to revolve around menudo and tamales at my mother-in-law’s house, but I yearn to have a go at the Italian Feast of Seven Fishes.
So while I am an Angeleno born and bred, for some reason New Year’s Day at my house always means hoppin’ John, the starchy stew of black-eyed peas and rice that is the New Year’s dish across most of the South, as well as vast pots of collard greens, goose-fat red beans, and the seafood gumbo my friend Jervey makes at my stove. New Year’s Day leans Southern. Hoppin’ John is the perfect dish for a lazy, gracious open house. It tastes good with either bourbon or Champagne.
The black-eyed peas, which resemble coins if you squint a little, are supposed to represent money in its abstract form. The collards represent folding green.
I make the hoppin’ John with country ham from Kentucky if I have it and good city ham if I don’t, with store-bought black-eyed peas when I haven’t remembered to order the red peas from Anson Mills, and with a clumsy mirepoix that somehow resolves itself into deliciousness by the time the dish finishes simmering. The traditional recipe calls for a single dried pepper added to the peas, but I like to believe that it is only because 19th century Charlestonians did not have ready access to squeeze bottles of Sriracha. If you pre-soak the peas for an hour or two, the hoppin’ John cooks in just a few minutes, but it cooks quickly enough even if you don’t.
And while nothing brings out the sweet earthiness of black-eyed peas like a good piece of ham, it is easy enough to jimmy up a parallel version of hoppin’ John for vegan friends if you leave out the meat and finish with a bit of Spanish smoked paprika instead, which gives the dish a jolt of tapas-bar smokiness instead of the feral animal notes of long-boiled pig.