Hoppin' John with rice and hot sauce

Amy and I visited New Orleans in the spring of 1992 on a road trip through Arkansas and Louisiana, and immediately fell in love with the culture of the whole area, which has had a lasting impact on our cooking, reading and musical tastes. Another road trip in 2003 took us to Beaufort, South Carolina and the greater Lowcountry region between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia, home to the Gullah people, who have a similarly rich heritage and delicious cuisine.

One New Year’s tradition common to both regions is Hoppin’ John, a creamy preparation of black-eyed peas and rice that we have adopted as our customary January 1st meal. It was the first thing we ate today, guaranteeing our good luck through 2007.

We already were lucky enough to snap up some bottles of Crystal Hot Sauce the other day at Pick ‘n Save® Caledonia. The stuff has been very hard to find since Baumer Foods was hit by Hurricane Katrina, and nothing else is quite the same. Here’s hoping the flow is being restored.

According to a Hoppin’ John history over at What’s Cooking America, the dish originated in the Lowcountry. There are a lot of variations posted around the Web, but I went with Emeril’s Hoppin’ John recipe. I feel that a ham hock (not bacon) is essential to its poor, folky character, and I wanted to cook the rice separately.

Beans and pork are a New Year’s tradition in several places around the world. According to Carol Field’s excellent book Celebrating Italy, “Tuscans eat lentils with cotechino, a big pork sausage sliced like coins, and people in Bologna and Modena eat them with zampone, the same sausage mixture stuffed into a boned pig’s trotter.” An article at Epicurious notes similar traditions in Germany and Brazil.

The andouille sausage we planned to include with our Hoppin’ John is still in the fridge. We’ll have it later on, sliced into “coins” to bring prosperity. The ham hocks were enough pork for now.

Last night at the stroke of midnight, we had pickled herring in our mouths, which is a practice of both Germans and Poles. Pickled herring is one of my mom’s New Year’s Eve staples. We like to cover as many bases as possible when it comes to good luck and quirky rituals.

We did not, however, join our neighbors Gene and Tanya, who, even as I have been typing here, emerged from their home with their young children. All of them wore flip flops, sported bare legs, and carried towels. Clearly they were headed out into the 38° F. air toward the annual Splash and Dash Polar Bear Plunge into Lake Michigan. Good luck to them.

Good luck to you as well, and thank you for taking the time to read this. May the year ahead be a happy and healthy one full of rich and rewarding experiences, good food, great books and movies, lush foliage, wonderful music, intriguing conversations, and outstanding radio.

One last thing: A promo during the Travel Channel’s Tournament of Roses Parade coverage reminded me that Season 3 of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations begins tonight at 9:00 Central. It seems like bad scheduling to launch a season on New Year’s, but it’s a great show and I guess this is why God gave us DVRs.

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