The hoppin’ John cassoulet on his New Year’s Eve menu at the Tabard Inn might give you the wrong impression about chef Paul Pelt. It might lead you to think that Pelt believes in random, mercurial luck. He doesn’t. The unusually taciturn cook — I’d call him shy if it weren’t for his occasional bursts of pointed humor — believes in divine providence over luck.
“I’ve bought lottery tickets and never won anything,” says the dreadlocked chef. “Last night we had our employee Christmas party. I’ve never won anything at the raffle.”
(Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) - Tabard Inn chef Paul Pelt will feature hoppin’ John on his New Year’s Eve menu, though he doesn’t necessarily believe it will bring good luck.
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No, Pelt’s interest in one of the American South’s great superstitions — that annual ritual of eating black-eyed peas to bring good fortune for the new year — is purely culinary. “I don’t really believe in luck,” he deadpans. “I just like eating pork and beans.”
If you took a poll, many eaters would probably fall into Pelt’s camp. Few, I trust, expect to win the Powerball after devouring a dish of hoppin’ John swollen with slow-cooked black-eyed peas. I suspect any fascination over the dish is 1 part camp, 2 parts gustatory pleasure and 97 parts tradition. A desire for black-eyed peas around New Year’s does not automatically assume you believe in the Deep South version of Jack’s magic beans.
The good-luck tradition tied to black-eyed peas is a curious one, given the bean’s history. Like the people who first loved the legume, black-eyed peas were a product of the slave trade. The men and women of West Africa, who were dragged involuntarily to the United States, were sought for their knowledge of rice cultivation.
In their search for a profitable crop, Southern plantation owners “tried everything they could,” says food historian and cookbook author John Martin Taylor (a.k.a. “Hoppin’ John”), during a phone interview from his new home in Bulgaria. “Rice happened to do really well there. That’s what then effected the slave trade. They specifically brought West Africans from rice-growing regions.”
And those West Africans, the literature so often notes, brought their food with them — except they didn’t, as food writer John Thorne so eloquently points out in his now-classic essay on hoppin’ John in the “Serious Pig” collection (North Point Press, 1996): “The only thing Africans brought with them was their memories. If they were fortunate enough to have been taken along with other members of their own community and to stay with them (which rarely happened) — there was also the possibility of reestablishing out of these memories some truncated resemblance of former rituals and customs.”
It was in all likelihood the slave traders who started to import black-eyed peas to the United States as some sort of backhanded charitable act to appease their unhappy charges during the long and often deadly journeys across the Atlantic. In the American South, with both rice and black-eyed peas available, the natives of West Africa could prepare a dish that reminded them of home: a humble combination of rice and beans that eventually became known as hoppin’ John.