The following is an excerpt from Rice and Legumes across the Caribbean;
Rice was always central to the West African diet, and many West Indian myths tell of captive slaves hiding rice grains in their hair so that they could fend for themselves if they ever become free again. The histories of different maroon groups in South America suggests some truth to these stories and account for why rice remained an important food for Maroons in the Guianas. Over millennia of trial and error, the rice growers of West Africa had developed intercropping systems that maximized yields and minimized the risk of potential pests by planting several crops. An important element of those intercropping systems was a legume that has a center of origin that overlaps with African rice; vigna unguiculata, more commonly known as the cowpea. The most common cultivar of the cowpea is the black eyed pea, a historically important ingredient in the cuisine of the American south.
Hoppin’ John is a dish made with black eyed peas and rice, flavored with onions and pork and typically eaten on the first day of January since it is said to bring prosperity in the New Year. Author of High on the Hog, Jessica B. Harris says that “the pea with the small black dot is considered especially lucky by many cultures in West Africa” and that this view has persisted in the new world. John Egerton, the author of Southern Food says that these legumes have a “mystical and mythical power to bring good luck” and are commonly associated with money.
This dish is also popular on the Caribbean coast of Colombia where it is known as Arroz de Fríjol Cabecita Negra. It is uncertain how it became popular there, but it was likely introduced by slaves passing through Cartagena, which was once one of the largest slave ports in the new world. In Trinidad and Tobago, black eyes peas and rice is a New Year’s Day tradition even though many people eating this dish on this day are unaware of the reason behind it. This tradition likely persisted locally in folk memory, but it was also reinforced by the presence of slaves known as “Merikins” who bought their freedom by fighting for the British against the Americans during the war of 1812.
At the end of this war, these slaves were paid with plots of land in south Trinidad where they could live as free men. In recent years, a variety of red rice thought to be extinct was found growing in the land that was given to these slaves indicating that they brought their crops and cuilinary culture with them. David S. Shields, the chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation described the rice growing in the hills of south Trinidad as “the most historically significant African diaspora grain in the Western Hemisphere.” Shields and his foundation is partially responsible for bringing African rice back on the market as Carolina Gold Rice. They are also involved in promoting Sea Island Red Peas, a lesser known landrace of vigna unguiculata similar to the varietals used in the earliest recipes for black eyed peas and rice in America. In the south, these recipes were all passed on orally until Sarah Rutledge, the daughter of a prominent Charleston family included a recipe in her 1847 cookbook, The Carolina Housewife. While that is the first written recipe, it is impossible to ever know who actually invented Hoppin’ John. The dish is virtually identical to some versions of Thieboudienne and Jollof Rice and likely developed over a long period of time in West Africa before crossing the ocean and being creolized as Hoppin’ John and Carolina Red Rice.