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.