The origin of the hoppin' John name remains a mystery. (Matt McClain for The Washington Post)
During my vacation last week — now with work included! — reader Pat Harden wrote in to suggest another theory (edited excerpt): My great grandmother, who was a young Charleston, S.C., girl during the War Between the States, told this story about the name ‘Hoppin’ John.’ She said late during the War and after, Southern soldiers would come to the back door and ask for food. The only food available for the most part was rice and field peas formerly used for livestock fodder. These were mixed together in a large pot which the Southern women would bring to the kitchen door and say, ‘Okay, hop in, John [Johnny Reb].’ The poor starving soldier would reach in the pot and scoop out a handful of rice and beans [peas].
Intrigued by the theory, I ran it by the go-to authority on hoppin’ John, the historian and author who adopted the name of the dish as his own alternative handle: John Martin “Hoppin’ John” Taylor. Via e-mail, he swatted the suggestion away like a buzzing gnat. More poppycock. Field peas were NOT fodder in the South, but food. And a preferred one at that (inclusion in ‘The Carolina Housewife of 1847 ’ . . . and in the novel I quoted in the 1830s is proof enough). One preferred variety was clay cowpeas, which Confederate soldiers carried in their field sacks as a nonperishable food source. They also planted them along field stations, where they were often posted for months, because they were so easy to grow and so prolific. FAKELORE, I don’t care what her great-grandmother said. But thanks for sharing. I had heard this before, but dismissed it then as easily as I do now.
The mystery of the hoppin’ John name, it appears, will continue.
Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.