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.
Much has been written about the origin of the name. Most of the theories, as Taylor wrote in a recent essay about the dish for Gastronomica, are merely “fakelore,” because “they are based on neither fact nor historical record.” One such theory supposes the dish earned its name from children hopping around the table before they could eat their beans and rice. (Please.) Another describes a hobbled man by the name of Hoppin’ John who sold the dish on the streets of Charleston, S.C. Thorne believes the name is a corruption of the French term for pigeon peas, “pois a pigeon,” while the late food historian Karen Hess thought the name derived from “the old Persian bahatta kachang, meaning cooked rice and beans,” Taylor wrote in his essay.