Monday, January 16, 2012

Hoppin' John Blues

For the past few weeks, I've been on the lookout for falling anvils, choking hazards, and any cheetahs that may have escaped from the local zoo. Why? Because I failed to eat Hoppin' John on New Year's Day. Growing up, my mother and grandmother, both natives of South Carolina, were fairly convinced that the fabric of space and time would collapse if we should ignore this ritual. There's a fine line between a cultural tradition and a symptom of Asberger's syndrome; in my family, when it comes to Hoppin' John, this line is completely blurred.

Now, all you Yankees (i.e., folks from New York, California, Bangladesh, etc.) may be wondering, "Who the f**k is Hoppin' John, anyway? A hyperactive blues singer? A lesser-known character on The Simpsons? That horse they had to put down after the Kentucky Derby?"
Hoppin' John: The age-old key to wealth, good luck, and heartburn...
Neither an animal nor a banjo player on meth, this starchy dish is a rather bland mixture of black-eyed peas, rice, and sundry spices that Southerners of all ilk eat on the first day of the yearand pretty much only then. Growing up, on New Year's Day, we would always have Hoppin' John and "a whole mess" (i.e., a great deal) of collards.

“The greens are the dollars, and the peas are coins,” my grandmother used to tell me, although the idea of eating money, even symbolically, always seemed a bit unsanitary. “Eat up, if you want to be healthy and wealthy in the New Year!”

In my family, failure to observe this culinary ritual had serious ramifications. My grandmother had any number of cautionary tales about the years she neglected to eat black-eyed peas and rice on New Year’s Day.  The year my grandfather died, for instance. Sure, the doctors called it “congestive heart failure,” but Grandmama knew the truth. It was the Hoppin’ John (or the lack thereof) that did him in.

I’m not nearly so superstitious, but usually I try to keep up this tradition. But, as it turns out, black-eyed peas are almost impossible to find in Seattle. I get the feeling it would be easier to score black-tar heroin (whatever that is) in this town.

“You mean, like, the band?” Asked the grocery store clerk, when I asked him where to find black-eyed peas. He was 19-ish, with a name tag that read “Tyler.” He seemed seriously stoned. At least, I gave him the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he was.

“No, like … the thing you eat?” I said.
If you can't find canned or frozen, you could try eating the above version...
Clearly, the idea of a food sharing the name of Fergie’s band was blowing young Tyler's mind. He just looked at me, as if I'd asked for something completely crazy, like, say, unicorn steakseven though everyone knows unicorns are endangered and killing them is just plain wrong!

“Little bean? Black... eye?” I attempted a descriptive gesture, which proved futile. Legumes are hard to pantomime.

Tyler just stared. For a long time, as if he went off on a magical journey to a cartoon wonderland inhabited by anthropomorphic black-eyed peas who giggle and slide down rainbows. In his imagination, maybe they even offered trivia about the word for "bra" in Indonesia, like the sassy bean in this Japanese commercial:


Alas, I went home sans black-eyed peas.

“If it comes to it, just use canned,” my mother suggested. A concern that bordered on fear came through in her Carolina drawl.  “But only if you absolutely have to.”

“No canned either. No black-eyed peas of any kind.”

“So just use frozen.”

I gave up.

Some years back, I forced some Yankee friends to experience the Hoppin' John and collard greens tradition on New Year's Day. I insisted to my friends that this meal would be the key to all things good in the coming year. Over the next 12 months, the friends in question would lose their jobs, break up, and move back in with their respective parents.

When I told my mom this story, she just shook her head. "Shouldn't have used canned."

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