Hoppin’ John is a pilaf made with beans and rice. The recipe came directly to America from West Africa and is typical of the one-pot cooking of the South Carolina lowcountry. As the recipe moved inland, it became the traditional dish for good luck on New Year’s Day throughout the South. The first written appearance of the recipe in English was in Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina House-wife, or House and Home, by a Lady of Charleston, published anonymously in 1847. Though most often made with black-eyed peas, the original Charleston version called for “One pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice.” Red peas are cowpeas, or dried field peas, which are, as are black-eyed peas, more akin to beans. Neither botanists nor linguists are in agreement on the origins of the dish or its ingredients. Likewise, none of several popular studies that attempt to explain the origin of the name of the dish are convincing. The culinary scholar Karen Hess believes that both recipe and name are derived from Hindi, Persian, and Malay words that mean, simply, “cooked rice and beans.” Whatever its origins, the dish, originally made with pigeon peas in West Africa, arrived in Charleston and became a favorite of the rice-plantation owners as well as the enslaved. When Sarah Rutledge, who was the daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and niece of Arthur Middleton, another signer, included the recipe in her collection, it was well established along the eastern seaboard as a classic Charleston dish.
Hess, Karen. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
Rutledge, Sarah. The Carolina Housewife. 1847. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1979.