A local twist on Hoppin’ John, the luckiest of New Year’s foods

by DGO Web Administrator

With the holidays decidedly behind us, we have one last big day to look forward to (well, until Snowdown, that is). New Year’s Day is just a few days away, and if you’re wishing for a prosperous 2018, then you need to be doing more than just nursing your hangover.

There are some pretty serious food rituals out there rumored to make or break your year. Some bring good fortune – like eating greens for luck, beans for money, grains for abundance, and pork for wealth and prosperity. Others are decidedly unlucky – apparently, eating chicken on New Year’s Day can cause your luck to simply fly away. No wonder I didn’t have any success with my resolutions last year. (Oh wait, that’s not because of chicken, that’s because I suck at follow-through.)

Why should pigs rooting forward mean luck and chickens scratching backward equal bad luck? It’s beyond me, but I’m a pretty superstitious person myself so I’m not going to argue with it. I do all kinds of ridiculous things for superstition – like how I’m sure the Broncos do better when I’m not watching, and I strategically get up to grab a beer or head to the bathroom on big third-down conversions. So if eating pork, rice, beans, and greens is rumored to bring me good luck, you better believe I’m gonna do it!

The best, easiest, and most famous way to cook up this combo comes from the American South: The Hoppin’ John, a super-savory dish of black-eyed peas and rice served alongside pork-braised collard greens. This dish pretty much guarantees your good luck, but unfortunately, it usually turns out mushy and less than stellar. Why so bad? Well, the ingredients they used back in the day certainly aren’t the same ones we’re cooking with today.

The first recipes for Hoppin’ John go back to the 1840s, and let’s just take a moment to think about how long ago that was. The first prospecting party arrived in the Animas Valley in 1860, and Colorado didn’t even become a state until 1876. Not to get into climate change or GMO cropping conversations here, but everything from the landscape to the crops themselves are different today.

For example, old-school Hoppin’ John recipes used red cowpeas (a firmer, meatier cousin to the modern-day black-eyed pea) and Carolina Gold rice (a non-aromatic long-grained rice variety that was prized for its ability to produce fluffy, individual grains). These crops were inexpensive and easy to grow in the South’s hot climate, but as time went on, the country moved away from these varieties. The rice couldn’t be harvested with mechanical harvesters and black-eyed peas were simply easier to grow.

So if the dish is about celebrating what was abundant in the American South (pork, rice, beans, and greens), why not twist it a little bit – just a little bit – to compensate for modern ingredients? And, while we’re at it, why not sub-in some locally-grown ingredients?

For example, we grow our own cowpeas right down the road in Dove Creek. Known as the Pinto Bean Capital of the World, Dove Creek is growing heirloom beans, packaged and shipped under the name Adobe Milling. You could use any of their beans, but look for the pink-eye pea. It’s the most similar to the red cowpeas from the antebellum South, a less starchy, super soft, and meaty bean with a slightly sweet flavor. Check out Nature’s Oasis and look for the beans with a bluish ring around the pea’s “eyes.”

Now that we have the peas out of the way, let’s talk about greens. There are any number of local collards, kales, and chards I could use, but I’m tempted to turn to something more famous and ultimately more recognizable – the green chile. This thing turns up everywhere in the Southwest – it’s in your breakfast scramble, smothering your burrito, and served up as soup with a side of tortillas. So, we would be remiss not to include those in our version of Hoppin’ John.

Since I’m not sure of any rice pioneers in Colorado (please, let me know if you know of any!), I chose an heirloom Kokuho rice from Koda Farms in California. It’s not totally local, but it’s my go-to rice because the grains maintain their individual texture. If you really want the real deal, order up a bag of Carolina Gold from Anson Mills. But since you’re cooking the rice separately and mixing it in later, you can choose any rice you’re into these days.

Put it all together (with some bacon, of course) and you have a locally-minded good-luck recipe for New Year’s Day. The best part of this recipe is the bean gravy (which I could basically drink). And, if you’re really feeling all that New Year’s partying, don’t worry about making it at home. Chef Neal at the Strater Hotel is whipping up a special Hoppin’ John batch for the big day!

Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at [email protected].

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