THERE WAS a time when things were fixed. There was a season for all things. Watermelons, huckleberries, strawberries were summer delights and collard greens weren't any good till the first frost hit them. It always snows at Christmas. I mean, there was a time when a holiday was a holiday. Folks would ask, "What day does Valentine's f all on?" Whenever it was Feb. 14, THAT was the holiday. These days, except for Christmas and New Year's, holidays are on Monday. You can have Christmas. Give me New Year's. I love New Year's Day. As the young folks said, it's the joint! Number one with a bullet. As far as I'm concerned, you can take all the holidays and make a week of Mondays out of them, but just give me my day, New Year's.
New Year's Day doesn't ask for anything. And promises so much. A brand new year. A chance to change up your style, your life, a chance to start all over. There's always a possibility that things will be better in the new year. you will be a better person. One always believes New Year's Day is the first day of a new time. Chronic illnesses will be cured in the coming year. Surely this year is the one. Money problems will be solved. Good health, good fortune will be yours. You can have faith in New Year's Day. It holds its own.
And to make sure of that, in the old Southern tradition every New Year's Day I cook hoppin' john. We believe that eating hoppin' john on New Year's Day will bring good luck throughout the year.
"Dose black-eyed peas is lucky
When e't on New Year's Day
You always has sweet 'taters
An'' possum come yore way."
We believe that, like we believed empty pockets on New Year's means you will be broke for the rest of the year, if it rains on New Year's it will be a rainy year. What you do on New Year's Day you will do all year.
Now, I know some folks think Southerners and their superstitions a bit weird, but I don't think believing hoppin' john on New Year's Day for good luck any weirder than the English superstition meeting a blackamoor first thing on New Year's is good luck.
Hoppin' john is made with black-eyed peas and black-eyed peas came from Africa via the slave trade. In some African religious ceremonies, dishes for the gods are made from these peas. So it's a bit more believable to me to believe the cow pea myth than running into a blackamoor in England on New Year's Day for luck.
Exactly how the dish came to be named hoppin' john is unclear. There are several stories about it. One is that the dish was named in honor of a house slave named John. On most plantations the Christmas-New Year's week meant lighter chores for the slaves. Slaves were, you might say, on "vacation." Many made it permanent. It's said that this was John's plan. And on this particular New Year's Day, when he served the midday dinner, he was so excited about his impending "vacation" that he couldn't walk. Instead, he hopped around the table. Suppertime, John was missing.
There is another dish called limping susan, made with okra and rice. Whether or not Susan has any relation to John I don't know. However, if there is a grain of truth in that story, John was lucky. Recently, I read a slave narrative by a former slave who recalled that hoppin' john got him in a heap of trouble. "Massa said, 'Heat that hoppin' john, nigger,' but I thought he said 'Eat it.'"
I've always found it mystical that the belief in hoppin' john and the fact that the official Emancipation Day come on Jan. 1, and I'd almost believed there was a true connection except for the fact that Southern white folks believed in the myth, too. I can't believe that they would hardly eat something that would bring about the emancipation of the slaves. On the other hand, one can believe that the slaves, those Africans who were the cooks, cooked their way to freedom.
I used to have open house on New Year's Day, and serve hoppin' john, collard greens, candied sweet potatoes and corn bread. Because I love mixed company, I would invite everyone. I mean EVERYONE. Old, young, black, white, famous, avant-garde, ex-spouses, lovers, singers, poets, lawyers, etc. I prided myself on knowing all kinds of people. Well, one year it was too, too mixed. It got out of hand. It was outrageous. A Canadian brought a white South African bore who got drunk and went to sleep in my best wicker chair (it's the Huey Newton type). He snored like a rhinoceros throughout the party. A photographer posed two black women on each side of him, took a picture and said he was going to send it to the South African mama in Johannesburg.
A gay Ivy League lawyer in a pinstriped three-piece suit told a dashiki, Afro-wearing black musician that he was playing white music.
One of my favorite pictures was broken, and the Jewish poet who broke it said, "It was that Arab."
And I was accused of committing blasphemy because I cooked the black-eyed peas with beef neckbones instead of smoked pork neckbones. That was the year that everyone was giving up the pig and I though that I was a very considerate hostess to consider my guests, especially the Muslims. The traditionalists said that hoppin' john with beef neckbones was avant-garde! The vegetarian said I shouldn't have used meat at all! The Muslims said black-eyed peas were bad for you! Others said they had never heard of such a thing! My mother said that I wasn't raised like that and would bring shame and disgrace to the family if any of her church people found out.
These days I still have people over on New Year's Day. And I still serve hoppin' john. But it's strictly invitational only. Damn near call before you come.
I really would not know what to do if I did not have my hoppin' john on New Year's Day. One year I thought that I might.
It was Paris, 1959. I was young and impressionable. I was full of new ways, trying to be an expatriate. I didn't want to be an American. I loved everything Paristian. It was so styish and cultured, I thought, to drink espresso, and not change forks when you cut the meat, etc. However, roots be deep.
The week before New Year's, I was in a panic. I had never in my life had a New Year's without eating black-eyed peas. Parisian habits were fine, but Carolina was in me. What would happen to me in this strange country if I did not have my black-eyed peas? Why, I might die or something.
Talk about the holiday depression blues. It was too late to ask Mama to send me some peas. There was no way I could survive without them on New Year's Day. What was I to do? Where did one get black-eyed peas in Paris? I asked some sedity black folks, who had been in Paris a while, where to go, but they wanted no part of anything so "country." The black folks in my group who wanted hoppin' john were as panicked as I and were searching too. I had no shame running around the city looking for the black-eyed peas. My fear of not having hoppin' john was greater than what people thought of me.
"Madame, avez-vous pois avec les yeux noir?"
I was not successful and had just given up when don't you know, just like Grandmama Sula used to say, "Hold on, keep the faith. The Lord works in mysterious ways. His wonders to behold," I ran smack into a sack of black-eyed peas in the shadow of the Louvre. Enough for a century of New Year's Days.
I bought a plenty, ran home, but not before I went pass the cafe where the seditty black Americans were, to show off my peas. They pretended they couldn't care less. But I knew better.
Since I was the only one in my group who had a room with soul, it was decided that the New Year's celebration would be at my place. Finding the ham hocks were no problem, because a hock is a hock is a hock all over the world. There were about nine of us Americans celebrating together. Except for Gudie the Bohemian (she was actually from Bohemia, the country) and Peter from Montana, we were all Southerners. Our group was young, and we were all the best of friends. In America we would never have been friendly, probably would never even have met, but there we were New Year's Day on the Rue Gitle Coeur. Paris is like that.
While the hoppin' john was cooking, I went to find Gudie. She lived on a street with a poetic name, Rue du Mont Sainte Genevieve.
As usual, I called Gudie from the street, since she lived on the top floor. There were too many stairs to climb on chances. Gudie looked out the window. Even at that distance, I could tell she was excited. "He did it, he did it, he did it!" she shouted.
"Did what? Child, just come downstairs and have some hoppin' john for good luck with us. My landlady is watching the pot and I don't want her in my room too long, so hurry."
Gudie was downstairs in a flash. Twirling and dancing in the street.
"He did it, he did it, he did it!"
I had no idea what she was talking about, but it didn't matter. I knew she was crazy.
"Oh, isn't it wonderful, isn't it wonderful? Come, let's have a glass of wine with them at the cafe to celebrate."
I had no idea who he was or what he had done, but I went with her to the cafe. It was full. Excitement and happiness were in the air. People were hugging and kissing each other. They were so happy. Someone pushed a glass of wine in my hand, and I started hugging and kissing everyone too. They were speaking French, Spanish and English. All I could make out was, "He did it!" I drank and grinned (which is what I do when I don't know what is going on).
As soon as I could find her. I took Guide aside and asked, "Who the hell is he ? What did he do?"
"Castro walked on Havana," she said. Of course, I had heard of Havana, but I had no idea who Castro was, or why he was walking. But I thought it must be good because they were so happy. I loved him. So I joined in with them and shouted, "Viva Castro! Cuba Libre!"
I left about an hour and went home to check on my hoppin' john. It was perfect. My friends arrived shortly and we had our New Year's Day celebration. Our hoppin' john for good luck. We toasted the new year. When my turn came, I said, "Viva Castro! Cuba libre! Happy New Year!"