In a perfect world, we would all eat and read equally well. Under this system of instant karma, if you were reading, say, Middlemarch, you could expect to come down to dinner and find something complex, delicious, and nourishing, whereas if you were reading, say, John Grisham, you could expect to be eating cheese doodles until you had finished the novel.
Lacking such a just world, I sometimes try to eat something appropriate to what I'm reading, and right now I'm smack dab in the middle of Light in August, which is the William Faulkner novel that I most like reading. There is not an awful lot about food in Light in August, but there is a fairly memorable scene where Joe Christmas first sets foot in the Burden house and finds a plate of field peas cooked with molasses. I don't think that I can easily lay my hands on field peas, and if I could, I would be loath to cook them with molasses, but there are other similar legume-based dishes that are appropriate to the setting of Light in August and to the time of year.
Although I was born in the (erstwhile) capital of the Confederacy, I do not, particularly, think of myself as a Southerner. Nonetheless, my culinary, and other, heritage includes a strong Southern component. This part of my heritage stems mostly from my mother's mother, who was born in North Carolina and never lived any farther north than Norfolk, Virginia. It would be nice to think that the heritage goes back to her mother, but her mother died when she was eight, leaving her to run a large part of the household until she was fourteen. By that time, she had acquired a wicked stepmother, and she was very happy to escape to a job in the mills. Grandma learned to cook as a new bride from her mother-in-law, a woman for whom she had nothing but praise. And she learned very well, raising a family of six children, the youngest of whom was about five when her husband died, ten years or so before I was born.
It is a tradition, or so my mother tells me, in the South to eat Hoppin' John on January 1st, to help ensure good luck. From what I've heard about my ancestors' lives, their luck was never all that great, so if they got help from eating blackeye peas and rice, then they surely would have perished without it. So why take any chances?
I will be staying with friends in Rehoboth on New Year's Day, and as my host is something of an anti-carbohydrate fascist, I do not think that I will attempt to make it this year. I made it when I was staying there last year, and it was very good, but it seemed wasted on that particular crowd, so this year I decided to make a pot of Hoppin' John early and have some both before and after the arrival of 2006.
3 quarts water
1 meaty hambone or 2 hamhocks
1 t. celery seed
1 small onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1 pound dried blackeye peas
1 t. salt
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
1.25 cups rice
Put the water, hambone, celery seed, onion, bay leaf, and read pepper flakes in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stir in the blackeye peas, salt, and pepper, reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for an hour. Stir in the rice and cook for an additional half hour, or until both the peas and the rice are cooked and tender. Remove the meat from the hambone or hamhocks, dice, and return to the pot. Add more salt and pepper, to taste.
Serve with hot sauce.
Hoppin' John has been around for a long time, and there are a lot of different recipes for it. I make no claim to authenticity, but I do think that mine is very good. I am sure that my mother made it differently, but I'm equally sure that she didn't do it from a recipe. She made blackeye peas on a fairly regular basis, so they more or less blend into the background of my culinary memory. In any case, I'm pretty sure that she'd happily eat my version; Mom is not much of a purist when it comes to the kitchen. I don't remember ever having spent New Year's Day with Grandma, but I'm pretty sure she'd have liked it, too. Provided, of course, that it was accompanied by both cornbread and collard greens.
I do remember Grandma, when she was well into her eighties, telling me that when she was a child, people sometimes bathed babies in pot liquor to help keep them healthy. Pot liquor is the liquid remaining from when you cook beans. You are, of course, free to try this, but I would recommend that you just eat the Hoppin' John for good luck and take the babies to the pediatrician on a regular basis.