Hoppin' John: A local New Year's Day tradition
As we wind down from Christmas (am I the only one who thinks “Wow! I’m glad that’s over??”) my little southern heart turns to one of the best meals of the year – New Year’s Day. In Beaufort, it’s Hoppin’ John.
For those who might be unfamiliar with southern New Year’s custom, a traditional meal of Hoppin’ John, collard greens, some kind of pork, and cornbread is eaten.
Not only are southerners very much like Chinese people (we eat a lot of rice and worship our ancestors), we also tend to be somewhat superstitious.
So the components of this meal have meaning, as such:
Hoppin’ John is eaten for good luck. The black-eyed peas swell when they’re cooked, indicating growth in posterity.
Collard greens (actually, any kind of greens will do) will ensure you have money for the year. Pork (your choice of a kind) is eaten because pigs root forward while chickens scratch backward, therefore, pork symbolizes growth and progress through the year. Cornbread symbolizes gold (and at the price of gold right now, I’m going to eat a lot of cornbread!)
This tradition is so ingrained in me that I think my soul would explode if I didn’t eat Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day. And I have an indelible memory of Hoppin’ John that I must share.
One year, when I was about 14 or so, my parents, brother, and I were traveling back home on New Year’s Day from some destination, the location of which has now left me and isn’t really important to the story. For supper, we stopped at a Shoney’s to eat. Because it was New Year’s Day, the restaurant was serving Hoppin’ John but if you didn’t want a whole serving they were giving out complimentary medicine cup size servings because, you know, they probably didn’t want to be responsible for anyone’s bad luck for the coming year. You got a complimentary serving whether you wanted it or not.
At some point near the end of our meal, a man and his teenage son came into the restaurant. For some reason, the man’s son had decided he didn’t need to wear shoes in the restaurant. Of course, they were stopped at the hostess desk.
A disagreement ensued and the man and his son decided to take seating into their own hands and proceeded to stake out a table next to ours.
The manager was summoned and a bigger disagreement ensued. Words were exchanged. Tensions mounted.
For some reason, still unknown to me many years later, my brother (16 at the time) got up from our table and stood beside it – an icon of strength and intimidation at 6’0″ and 120 pounds. I guess if nothing else he could have used his bony elbow as a weapon if he had to enter the fray.
The man and his son were finally escorted out. As for me, I had not moved a muscle in the 10 minutes since the pair had entered the restaurant. My brother may have had a super-hero image of himself but I knew my place at 5’0″ and 70 pounds. I honestly don’t remember what my parents were doing but knowing my father, he was calmly sipping his coffee and planning what his strategy would be if things got really bad.
So every year when I eat Hoppin’ John I think of that Shoney’s. I picture my tall, skinny brother trying to look tough and I remember how still I sat.
And yes, I ate the Hoppin’ John that was given to me in that little cup. We all did.
We didn’t dare not to.
Editor’s note: Written by Elizabeth Bishop Later for A Place Called Home: A memoir of Beaufort and St. Helena Island, South Carolina. You can read more from the book and writings of Sonny Bishop and Elizabeth Bishop Later at http://ouryardfarmhome.com and see the original piece here. We appreciate Elizabeth and Sonny’s sharing of their Beaufort memories, local lore and history, and some musings with us all. It’s good stuff.
By Elizabeth Bishop Later