This will be my farewell column for The Cheraw Chronicle. We will all miss this grand old paper that kept us informed and on top of the doings of our neighbors.
I hope that you will join me at Holding Patterns, my blog. To find me, go to sandimcbride.blogspot.com And now for the final column.
Hoppin’ John and Collard Greens or Ringing in the New Year
(For Joan, who asked)
You know it wasn’t just yesterday that I discovered that I really love Southern cooking. I’ve known it ever since I was big enough to sit up at the table with a chicken leg in one hand and one of Mammy’s biscuits in the other.
No one can quite make biscuits like our grandmothers, can they, Belles? No matter how much I watched her with that bowl of flour, from step one to step oven, I could never match her for tenderness, flakiness or just plain goodness.
They always came out of the oven exactly the same golden brown every time, the steam rising off them carrying with it the faint sour smell of buttermilk. I was having a discussion with my neighbor, Joanne, about buttermilk. She likes to eat cornbread in buttermilk, just like Mac does (and he loves saltine crackers mixed up in it, too.)
I don’t like the taste of buttermilk in the raw. I like it in my pancakes or buckwheat cakes. I like it in my biscuits or as a dressing in my slaw, but I don’t want a big icy glass of buttermilk with chunks of bread floating in it so you had to eat it with a spoon. No ma’am, I want to cook with it.
Anyway, it’s the Southern cook who gets the blame for high cholesterol and hardened arteries, for the most part. What made my grandmother’s (we called her Mammy) biscuits so doggoned good, you ask? You didn’t ask? Well, I’m sure you intended to, so here’s the answer. It was the lard. It was the soft wheat self-rising flour. It was the buttermilk. And it was her hands.
She always told me that I overworked the dough, that you just wanted to work it till it held together nicely when you “petted” it into a round. The imprint of her knuckles would always be in that finished product. I can’t remember a time when we were children that she wasn’t up with the roosters, making a pan of biscuits, frying side meat (fat back or streak a-lean) a pot of grits on the back of the stove and those wonderful scrambled eggs, soft white swirls of egg white like marbling throughout them.
My sister Toni was the only one I know of who managed to learn her method of scrambling eggs. Now, here we are coming onto the New Year and we have a custom. We eat Hoppin’ John and collard greens.
Hoppin’ John is simply black-eyed peas cooked till they’re nicely soft and served over a big fluffy bed of rice, pot likker and all. (Pot likker is the water your food is cooking in.) Some folk like to serve a healthy dollop of chopped onions on top, too.
I used to ask Mammy why they called it Hoppin’ John and the only answer I ever got was because someone had kicked John in the shin. That was her way of saying she didn’t have a clue. I have read about eight or nine theories as to how it got the name, but so far no one really seems to know.
If you go by one of the many that Hoppin’ John is a Louisiana Patois, an odd adaptation of the Creole French “pois pigeons” or “pigeon peas,” pronounced pwah peeJON. I suppose it’s not too far from that to hoppin’ John. I guess you’d say that where hoppin’ John got its name is still a mystery.
Then there are collard greens. They’re much like cabbage, but not at all like cabbage. They’re similar to turnips, but very dissimilar to mustard greens. They have body to them. They are really the only green leafy vegetable I know that requires chewing. And the heads aren’t ready to pull till it’s had one good frost on it. Freezing sweetens them.
Now, the reason we especially eat them on New Year’s Day is for wealth and prosperity. The tradition being that if you eat the Hoppin’ John, you’ll have plenty of coins pass through your fingers, and if you eat collards you’ll have folding money in your pocket all the time.
It’s a wonderful tradition in that if you have Hoppin’ John and collards on your table, you’re richer than an awful lot of people who have nothing on their table. And so, once again, we will be rich this year.
The collards are in the freezer and a bag of dried black-eyed peas is always in my cupboard. You never know when a little wealth will come in handy.
Sandi McBride is a resident of Jefferson who blogs regularly and enjoys her garden and her furry and feathered friends. She is a wife and mother of two sons.