Hoppin’ John for New Year’s Day good luck. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

News of tragedies has been heaped upon us, the fortunate, and actual tragedies have made the end of 2012 catastrophic for so many families. Our hearts go out to them, most of all to the parents who lost children in Newtown, CT, and all parents who have lost children of any age. (If any of my readers know actual parents, I urge you to read the novelist Ann Hood’s moving and useful words on helping the bereaved.)

Meanwhile Congress seems certain to throw our economy back into recession in what is a colossal disgrace of a house divided, and I think the lot of them should be run out of town on a rail. One of the shamed, Senator Joe Manchin, put it rightly when he said, “Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress.”

“A plague on both your houses!” shouts an angry and fatally wounded Mercutio in a story of houses divided. And the Prince standing over the dead lovers, Romeo and Juliet, shouts at the grieving:

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,

That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.

And I for winking at your discords too

Have lost a brace of kinsman. All are punish’d.

That last line applies to Americans, with thanks to our disgraceful public servants. All are punished.

So on to better things, posthaste! As you and I do not reside in Congress and still have some control of our own fate, I urge you to cook Hoppin’ John for good luck and put special care into the work, with fervent hope that we can learn to work together in the new year!

The Oxford scientist and philosopher Richard Dawkins gives a superb TED talk on our relative views of the universe, noting that at the atomic level there is so much space between electrons, protons, and neutrons that a rock is actually more empty space than not, though we perceive it as solid. He notes that, given that all the atoms in a solid object are in a state of continuous vibration, it is theoretically possible for a rock to move. If all the atoms in a statue’s hand vibrated in the same direction, he says, that statue could wave at us. Highly improbably of course, as atoms do not vibrate together. But think what could happen if they did work together. If they worked together, they could make the seemingly impossible happen.

So could we, I dare say.

Cooperation, after all, is one of our chief traits as humans. And it was arguably cooked food’s greatest gifts to our early ancestors. The cooking of food was so valuable, the flood of calories we got from it so useful in making us smart and healthy, able to spread our genes far and wide, that we learned to work together. Cooking food is work and requires it of us. I’ve written about this issue, laid out brilliantly in Richard Wrangham’s book Catching Fire, and note that it should be no surprise to us that as soon as we stopped cooking and gave our food and its preparation over to corporate giants, that food relatively quickly began to make us sick, give children adult diseases and dangerous allergies, trash our land, pollute our waters, and debase the creatures we rely on for food and those who tend them.

Recently a prominent New York editor, one of my publishers, in fact, asked me with some desperation in his voice, “I want to cook more, but I am so busy—how can I do it when I’m working 12 hours a day?”

I understand. I sympathize with people who truly have no choice, who must eat literally as they move from one place to another, and it saddens me. How a working mother also feeds her kids good home-cooked food, I honestly find it hard to fathom. But the fact is, most people in this country are able to carve out discretionary time.

My answer to them, my answer to the editor above, is first to recognize how very important cooking our own food is (we’ve seen the peril we put ourselves and our land in when we ignore this fact).

Then I recommend doing what our ancient ancestors did: work together. Share in the cooking. If you like to cook, offer to cook for others. If you don’t like to cook, be the gatherer or protector of the food. Look after the children so that the cook can work. Help in the cleaning. We make time to bathe, to watch TV, to read. Make time to cook. Make it. It takes planning—plan ahead. And work together.

To all my readers and especially those who take the time to comment here, all best wishes for a prosperous and fruitful New Year, filled with great food and great companionship and working together.

Hoppin’ John

This Hoppin’ John recipe is a dish from the American South featuring black-eyed peas, often included in southern food and soul food recipes, traditionally served on New Year’s Day by those angling for good fortune all year long. I make Hoppin’ John every year for this very reason (also, it’s inexpensive, easy, nutritious and satisfying). There are all kinds of variants (here’s the Wikipedia description of Hoppin’ John), but they all share three features that I think must be a part of the dish or it’s not Hoppin John: black-eyed peas, smoky bacon, and some kind of heat.

I always include onion and I also always include tomato, which is not traditional but I think it gives great acidity and flavor to this bean dish. This year I threw in some Mangalitsa guanciale because I could, and some cumin because I felt like it. I’ll serve it on New Year’s Day, with rice (rice is sometimes included in the dish, but I like it on the side).

  • 1 pound black-eyed peas, rinsed and picked through
  • 2 large Spanish onions, one peeled and halved through the root, one medium diced
  • 2 carrots
  • 4 bay leaves
  • kosher salt to taste
  • 8 ounces bacon, cut into 1/4-inch strips
  • 5 cloves garlic, or more, smashed with the side of a knife and roughly chopped
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes (3 if you like it really hot)
  • 1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • One 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
  1. Put the black-eyed peas, the halved onion, the carrots, and 3 of the bay leaves in a large pot. Cover it all with about three inches of water (you’ll need about 2 quarts). Put the pot over high heat, bring it to a simmer, then turn the burner to medium low and continue to cook until the beans are tender, 60 to 90 minutes. Add 2 or 3 teaspoons of salt midway through the cooking. (Add more water if the water level goes below the beans.) Reserve 2 cups of the cooking liquid. Strain the peas, picking out and discarding the onion, carrots and bay leaves.
  2. While the peas are cooking: In a pot big enough to hold the beans, cook the bacon over medium-low heat until the fat is rendered and the bacon is browned. Add the medium diced onion, chopped garlic, and a three-finger pinch of salt. Cook until the onion is softened and translucent and beginning to brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the cumin, pepper flakes, and black pepper, turn the burner to medium, and stir to combine the seasonings with the onion. Add the juice from the tomatoes. Then add the tomatoes, crushing them in your hand as if you were furious with them, dashing them, their brains squirting out between your fingers. (You could instead put them on a cutting board, of course, and roughly chop them, then scrape the tomato and juices into the pan with the onion.) Add the last bay leaf. Bring this to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes or so to reduce and thicken the sauce.
  3. Stir in the black eyed-peas, and cook to heat through. Add some or all of the reserved bean liquid to keep it juicy (add all of it if you’ll be chilling and reheating it). Taste. If it needs something, try a little more salt. Still need something? Try some fish sauce. Want it hotter? Add more pepper flakes. Too salty? Oops! Now you need to make a half batch with no salt and add it to this one! (Actually I’ve always found the above recipe to be on the money.)
  4. Serve immediately, or if it’s Wednesday and you’re not serving it till Saturday (the case here), cool then chill it in the fridge uncovered, then cover it when it’s cold. Reheat it slowly so as not to burn the bottom; add some water or some wine if it looks a little dry.
  5. Serve with rice and some crunchy toasted and buttered bread, and garnish with pickled chiles if you have them!

Makes about 2 quarts of beans, which will serve about 15.


© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


26 Wonderful responses to “Thoughts on the Eve of a New Year”

  • Mary

    Happy New Year! Thank you for all that you do. Many good wishes for the New Year to you, your family, and the collaborative community you belong to. Cheers.

  • Emily

    Bravo, sir! I hope you and your family have a wonderful 2013. Thank you (again) for your work, your books, your recipes, and the inspiration you dish out to us all!

  • Carri

    “Our lives are not in the lap of the gods, but in the lap of our cooks.” – Lin Yu-tang
    I think those lawmakers on Capital Hill just need a good meal!
    Thank You, Michael, as always you are right on point.
    Cheers to a Happy, PEACEFUL and Plentiful New Year!

  • lux

    I so agree, Michael. Happy New Year to you and Donna! We’ve got some Rancho Gordo beans in the pantry, although not the black-eyed kind.

  • Mike

    It’s really cold here in Reno and this dish looks perfect to warm up the soul! Going to run to the store and pick up a couple things off the recipe list that I don’t have then make it. Happy New Year’s to you and your family!!

  • Andrew

    In my home, all our meals are cooked at home. We don’t buy prepared food, we don’t get take out. We eat out infrequently, maybe once or twice a month, if that. There’s no boxed cereal or instant oatmeal, even breakfasts are all cooked at home. I am a full time physician with a busy surgical practice and two small children, and my wife works full time as well. But like you said, if it’s important to you, and it should be, you make time for food. I don’t go out to movies, golf, hang out at bars, or spend hours on the couch watching football. I’m up at 4:30 every morning to give me enough time to exercise, get showered, shaved, dressed, etc., prepare lunches and snacks for the four of us so my family doesn’t sicken themselves on the foods available at school cafeterias or the workplace, and cook a warm breakfast for my family to start their day off right. When I get home, I may do a little yoga and then I get into the kitchen to start chopping vegetables for salad and do whatever else I need to get a home cooked dinner ready. It may be leftovers, but they’re my leftovers from the food I cooked over the weekend or earlier in the week (make extra!).

    You have to be organized, as you have preached many a time. I make a worksheet each week listing what we will have for breakfast and dinner and what needs to prepped/thawed in advance. You have to be dedicated. If your job has you on the road more often then not, this is not going to be easy or possible, though you can still do your best to make intelligent choices when traveling. But even busy employed Americans who can make time for television, internet, and any number of recreational activities can carve out some time to make sure someone in the home is cooking at home.

    And Michael, perhaps you should go down to DC and teach a cooperative cooking class to the clowns in Congress. Maybe if they can work together to put a dinner on the table they can figure out a way to work together to avoid destroying our economy and our lives.

  • Mantonat

    Happy New Year! I couldn’t agree with you more about the mess in DC right now and the appropriateness of your quotes from Romeo & Juliet.

    I make my black-eyed pea dish for NYE with a smoked ham hock broth, black-eyed peas cooked with a mirapoix plus garlic and bay leaf, a pile of sauteed mustard greens, a poached egg, and a topping of gremolata.

  • armymum

    Happy New Year to you and your family! Thank you for all you do; especially for taking time from your schedule to answer our comments. No Chinese take out here tonight… roasted garlic ciabatta made into garlic bread (with real butter) just came out of the oven, ribeye roast seasoned with a garlic parmesan crust is awaiting the oven to be made with franconia potatoes and roasted shallots and lemon snow pudding for dessert. Off to make the pudding…

  • Victoria

    Dear MR,

    I seem to recall that you don’t like the term “home cook.” I, on the other hand, do like that term, use it to describe myself, and say out loud that your are the mentor of us HOME COOKS.

    Thanks for everything – the spoons, and the bread, and, certainly, the fried chicken. Happy New Year to all the Ruhlmans.

  • Elke

    I was just going to find a recipe for this online and here it is! I got the black-eyed peas a few days ago but we are missing a few items. It will be a good excuse to walk to the store tomorrow! Happy New Year –

  • Melinda

    Happy New Year and thank you for the recipe. Our family always makes some form of blackeyed peas for good luck at New Years so I was excited to see yours. My mother’s favorite recipe was Dinah Shore’s! I made them this afternoon to enjoy tomorrow while we hang out and watch football. They are very tasty and just the right amount of spicy, salty as you wrote. I have enjoyed your blog for the last couple of years, making the turkey stock, Manhatten’s with Rye and many other other delicious additions to my repertoire. I look forward to another great year of cooking with you and enjoying your wifes beautiful photos.

  • Sheiladeedee

    Such a powerful post, and response from Andrew. Right now I am preparing for a dinner on New Years Day with a group of friends who gather each year to celebrate our bonds… The eight of us have been friends for forty years, and the meals we share, whether at holidays or impromptu picnics or at restaurants or diners on our periodic field trips, are the glue that holds us together. Cooking for them, or for my family, is a profound act of love.

    My cousins on my father’s side are preparing for a family reunion this summer, and we are planning to rent or borrow a kitchen from a church or institution so we can all cook together (not far from Cleveland, Michael, you’d be welcome). On my mother’s side we have an annual three day reunion during which my sisters and I cook a dinner for about 125 relatives. Every memory of my childhood is tied to cooking and sharing food with friends and loved ones.

  • Rita K

    I’m sorry, am I missing it? Where does the garlic go? I’m assuming with the bacon and onions… could you confirm? I’m making this… right now!

  • Dorothy

    I love the idea of having Hoppin John on NY Day, but I need to make a vegetarian version – any suggestions on what could replace the bacon?

  • Dru

    A few years ago we moved .5 hour north of the Mason-Dixon Line and *poof* it is all about pork and sauerkraut, no hoppin John to be seen or discussed.
    Such a lovely way to bring in the new year. It should be our congress be required to cook and eat together. Good way to bring in the year. As farmers, we thank you for all you do for eaters, and for cooking. Our personal economy is small but the best food ever.

  • Skip

    Made my hoppin’ John yesterday with a smoked ham hock. Being born in Savannah, black-eyed peas have been part of my New Year’s Day ever since I can remember. Michael, here’s wishing you and your family the best of years!

  • Joy

    Made this Hoppin’ John today and it was a fantastic start to this new year. First time making this dish and I need look no further for other recipes. This is the one–thanks for sharing!

  • allen

    I made a meal version or your Barton’s gin and tonic; a quick whatever the hell I had available that was easy.

    It was a spicy ginger chicken soup with brown rice and lots of vegetables, should get me through this short week, and everything came out of the freezer – frozen ginger knob is great, used a microplane to grate.

    Returned from a nice long vacation and skipped out on all electronic media and news other than a few ebooks and films.

    Read Wartime Lies, by Louis Begley, and saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, these are well worth mentioning, reading and seeing.

    I was on a cruise to the Carribean and brought my own spice kit, it made the less tolerable food more edible, and it made a great sweet vermouth for a Negroni,

    We had a 1 ltr bottle of gin, and a 1 ltr bottle of Campari, 1 Orange, a bottle of red wine and a small airline size bottle of my homeade bitters.

    I’ve never heard of homemade sweet vermouth before. I took the red wine and infused it with a little simple syrup, added an orange peel, a few spices. It needed to be reduced, but turned out quite flavorful, one of the better vermouth’s I’ve ever had, and definately the best Negroni I ever had. Way too many.

    Wishing you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

  • former butcher

    As the Wikipedia description says, the name comes from a Creole name for black eyed peas, pois pigeones or pigeon peas (brought from Africa, according to legend). The cooks of the Louisiana plantations and New Orleans aristocracy were generally Creoles, speaking a French patois. When the field workers (i.e. slaves) heard them refer to this dish as pois pigeones (pwa pissyon), they started calling it Hopping John.
    This dish is best with a really smokey bacon and ham hocks. I use kale because good collard greens are difficult to find here.