How did Hoppin’ John get its name?
One theory is that it originated from the Creole name for pigeon peas, “pois a pigeon,” pronounced “pwah peeJon.” Close enough for Southerners to say Hoppin’ John from that point on.
Some believe it originated with a children’s game similar to musical chairs where kids hop up and down at the table, hence the name. Duh. The Grandkids from Hell love to jump up and down at the table as though they’ve swallowed Slinkies … even when it’s not New Year’s Day.
Babe claims that in Pennsylvania people eat pork and sauerkraut to clean them out in preparation for the coming year. Yuk. Homemade colonoscopies might pass as Yankee logic, but I’ll settle for kids jumping up and down at the table like Jack (on Crack) in the Box.
Believing that it will ward off bad luck, Southerners adhere to the tradition of eating pork, collards and Hoppin’ John on New Year’s. I am Southern to the bone, but I was not always a believer. I am now.
In 1960 I said to my mother, “No Hoppin’ John for me and certainly no collards. I hate greens.” So I ate no peas and rice or collards on that first day of the year over fifty years ago. Big mistake.
Mama roasted Boston Butt pork to a fair-thee-well and had her collards swimming in ham pot likker like Esther Williams. I didn’t believe for a minute that a year of good luck depended on certain veggies eaten on January first. But I never met a pig I didn’t want to take home to Mama, but after downing three pork sandwiches — my one nod to tradition — I was struck with the bellyache from hell. I thought I was dying. A stomachache was only a hint of what was to come. Had I but known, I’d have seriously considered mainlining leftover collards.
Obviously I didn’t die, but the very next day my dog blitzed a can of Alpo, looked up at me, and croaked. It is true that she was old, but her death was still a shock. I was a kid and that dog had been begging for table scraps all my life. Her high-speed exit made me think that she, too, should have eaten collards.
Susie Q was buried in the back yard. Mama and I watched and cried while passing each other the Kleenex box. Daddy was a policeman and the gravediggers were prisoners from the jailhouse. He wore a dark suit and tie and stood at the gravesite with his hands clasped in front of him. I said, “Daddy looks like a preacher,” and we laughed through our tears.
On January third, I set the kitchen on fire. I didn’t do it on purpose, it just happened. That afternoon, I’d been craving French Fries. After pouring lard in the frying pan, I realized we were slap out of potatoes.
Forgetting that I’d turned on the burner under the lard, I grabbed my pocketbook and walked to the Piggly Wiggly for a five-pound bag of potatoes. I was dilly-dallying back home pretty much like Prissy in Gone With the Wind, when the sound of sirens stopped me. Turning the corner, I saw not one red fire truck, but three of those bad boys parked end to end in front of my house. Smoke billowed from the kitchen door and open window while neighbors gossiped and gawked on the sidewalk.
Mama’s kitchen was toast. All of the cabinets had be repainted; the new wallpaper smelled like a campfire. Mama stayed mad at me for twelve months.
I dreaded January fourth. Would it bring even more bad luck? I wondered if the calamities I’d dealt with for three days were only teasers. Turned out that’s what they were. 1960 was the longest year of my life. A new piece of bad luck pounced on me every day of that year.
Bottom line? I learned to respect traditions, why they were established in the first place and why we must honor them no matter what. These days I think nothing of hogging down Pork, collards and Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day. In fact, I totally look forward to that particular meal.
I promised myself then that every year while my jaws can still go up and down in chew mode, I will cover my sassy southern you-know-what by gobbling me up some Hoppin’ John, collard greens, pork and even some of that boring Yankee delight, sauerkraut. All cabbages and their cousins are my BFF’s come January first.