James and I come home from a comprehensive shopping trip just as Mark arrives for lunch. The three of us ferry shopping bags to the house in the pale sunlight. (There was no worry about the ice cream treats I indulged in at Aldi’s staying cold on this crisp Ohio January day. We left them in the trunk while we ran into Kroger to top off the shopping trip with produce and Italian sausage and a variety of cleaning supplies. Then, trunk and back seat jammed with packages, we drove home to enlist Mark’s help in unpacking.)
It feels good to fill the larder again with homely, everyday foods after the rich abundance of holiday treats. Tonight, I think, I’ll release some hot Italian sausage from its casing, and brown it up with a big chunk of burger, stir in the left-over red sauce, and simmer up some chili. There’s a bag of cornbread mix my niece Meg sent in a savory Christmas package; that will be a wonderfully steamy side. And, I decide, I’ll use up some set-aside crumbs in a batch of potato chip cookies.
But first, the three of us thrust and parry and dance, shoving cleaners beneath the sink, running an industrial-sized package of toilet paper to the stairs, hustling cold food down to the freezers, and rearranging space on the pantry shelves. When we finish, Mark returns to eating some cold chicken drumsticks, spiced with a new rub we discovered not long ago and roasted up for last night’s dinner. Jim turns the oven on to bake a couple of chicken cordon bleus he scored at Aldi’s. Chilled from all the outdoors-ing and hefting and sorting freezer food, I decide I want something hearty and spicy and satisfying.
I take the remaining Hoppin’ John from the fridge, scoop a big dollop into a red Fiesta-ware bowl—the Christmas china went back to its ignominious basement hiding place last night—layer a dessert plate on top and stick it in the microwave for four minutes.
While I wait for the beep, I wonder again where the name Hoppin’ John came from.
We were trying to remember last week, Mark and I, where and how we learned that Hoppin’ John is good luck food on New Year’s Day. We’d latched onto the idea somewhere, and then my niece sent us a South Carolina cookbook, and there was a recipe. It wasn’t like anything we’d tried before, and we decided it would be fun to give it a shot one New Year’s Day, at least a decade ago.
And we liked it so well, it’s become a tradition, and black-eyed peas, something I’d never cooked with before, have their own reserved space in our larder.
Probably, Mark and I mused, this was not the food served at the big table in fancy plantation houses. While those folks ate their holiday roast from fine china, careful not to spill a drop on the creamy imported lace tablecloths, the people who’d engineered the fancy feast were, probably, finally cooking their own special meal. And they were no doubt doing that with the pieces and parts the rich folk turned their noses up at—the hog jowls, the field peas, the rice, and the leftover tomatoes.
Today, in the lull between lunch and dinner prep, I decide to look up the history of Hoppin’ John.
What’scookingamerica.com answers all my questions. It tells me the dish is fixed all over the South, a traditional New Year’s Day treat, but that it is special to the Carolinas. A quintessentially American dish, it has roots in many cuisines—in French and African and Caribbean styles, all filtered through the materials available to the good Gullah cooks from the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and northern Georgia.
The recipe, the website tells me, first appeared in print in 1847, in a publication called The Carolina Housewife. And tradition says that it became popular through the marketing skills of a lame Black man who sold the dish in the winter, on the streets of, perhaps, Charleston—when even southern winds carried a chill to the hearty shoppers out walking in the December air. The man had an odd skipper-y gait, and he…and the dish he so successfully sold…came to be called Hoppin’ John.
There are other possible explanations for the dish, whatscooking.com tells me, but I like the spirit and the success of that indomitable John’s personality. That’s the story I choose to believe.
Each component of the recipe, I learn, has its meaning, and they mostly deal with financial good luck. The black-eyed peas (the recipe is also, sometimes, called “Carolina Peas and Rice”) represent coins. The tomatoes stand for health. Traditionally, the dish is served with collard greens—greens for greenbacks—and cornbread, its golden goodness reminding us of the gold that brings us wealth. Eating Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day, the hopeful legend tells us, brings prosperity in the new year.
And, having savored my leftover Hoppin’ John, I am excited to read that, when you eat the dish as leftovers after New Year’s Day, it becomes known as Skippin’ Jenny. And that means the money-luck, and one’s ability to manage all that prosperity frugally, will certainly last all year.
So now I have a face and story to bolster my understanding of Hoppin’ John, and I think of another named-for food: Sloppy Joe. WAS there a Joe, and was he sloppy?
I search, and I discover Sloppy Joes have an even more convoluted history than Hoppin’ John.
It could be, wonderopolis.org tells me, that the saucy sandwiches were named for Joe, a cook at Floyd Angell’s café in Sioux City in 1930. Joe was used to making “loose meat” sandwiches, legend says, and one day, he decided to change it up by adding tomato sauce to the mix. The sloppy sandwiches were an instant hit, and an American classic was born.
Maybe. The classic might have been born years before that, in in 1918, when, Jen Wheeler writes on chowhound.com, Jose Abeal y Otero opened Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana, Cuba. Otero’s space, Wheeler suggests, was maybe a little less than pristine, and it may have been his friends who suggested the name for both his bar and the sandwich he invented. It wasn’t exactly the sloppy joe we know. Wheeler writes that Otero’s sandwich combined “…two Cuban classics—ropa vieja (shredded meat in tomato sauce) and picadillo (ground beef with spices.)”
OR—the sandwich could have come from a Key West bar that Ernest Hemingway liked to frequent. In fact, he named the place for his friend, owner Joe Russell. Russell, who shows up in To Have and Have Not as Freddy, the bar owner and captain, first called his place The Blind Pig. That didn’t work, and he changed the name to The Silver Skipper. It still wasn’t just right, and, at Hemingway’s insistence, Russell finally named his bar after Otero’s bar in Havana. Another Sloppy Joe’s was born.
As far as I can tell, the Key West Sloppy Joe’s still exists and still maintains that the great American sandwich started THERE. Wheeler quotes Donna Edwards, Sloppy Joe’s brand manager. “We took it,” Edwards said in 2015 of that Cuban-style sandwich, “and Americanized it by making it THE sloppy joe and not just a loose meat sandwich.”
Hmmm. At least we can be sure of whom one food, a food we learned Mark and I were mis-naming for most of our lives, was named for. Johnny Marzetti, a baked combination of ground meat, tomato sauce, cheese, and pasta, is named for Teresa’s brother-in-law. (That dish is not, as our peeps in western New York might believe, called “goulash.”)
Elizabeth at ohiothoughtsblog.blogspot.com, wrote a nice essay about Johnny Marzetti in 2013. Teresa Marzetti opened a restaurant on Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio, in 1898, the year she and her husband immigrated to the States. The family place was so successful, they opened another. The Broad Street site closed in 1942, but the other restaurant remained opened until 1972, the year Teresa died. The dish called Johnny Marzetti remained one of its most popular offerings.
“We will start a new place and serve good food,” Elizabeth quotes Teresa as saying, way back at the beginning, “at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but we will serve good food.”
The hearty combination of meat and sauce and pasta sold for 45 cents a serving, and I can just imagine it warming the bellies and the spirits of hungry people during hard times. Johnny Marzetti obviously fulfilled Teresa’s vision of good, good food.
On this ordinary Friday night, the holidays slowly sliding behind us (we will take the tree and the nativity, our only remaining symbols of the feast just celebrated, down on Sunday, the Feast of the Epiphany), I chop and stir to make that chili for dinner. I dice a little onion and throw it into a deep skillet with “loose meat’—the untethered hot Italian sausage, the ground beef. I sprinkle minced garlic.
When everything is richly browned, I pour in spaghetti sauce from Tuesday night’s meal. I open a can of kidney beans and another of tomato sauce. I stir.
The mixture, homely and simple, begins to bubble, and I turn down the heat and gather the ingredients for cookies. I’m using a recipe from 1901, from a state fair in Kansas, I think, that calls for crushed potato chips. We have two little Tupperwares full of the ends of chip bags; I will crunch them down and mix them in, into the dough that contains my home-mixed AP flour substitute and a little oat flour and just a smidgen of whole wheat flour. I’ll use the end of a bag of semi-sweet and milk chocolate and white chips, and a new bag of semi-sweet morsels. By the time Mark comes home, there will be cookies cooling on the sideboard and that thick rich Central American-inspired stew thickening and heaving on the stove top.
Ordinary food. Food invented by some ordinary genius who asked herself—or himself—“What would happen if I added beans to that?” or “What can I do with these leftover potato chips? The kids won’t eat them, but I hate to throw them out.” They experimented—sometimes, no doubt, they failed miserably, but sometimes they had amazing successes. Those successes got passed down, and the people who received them used the ingredients THEY had at hand, morphing them even more.
There are times, of course, for grand dishes named for grand people—for Napoleons and Charlottes and Wellingtons,—even, for fancy Sandwiches. And then there are times for ordinary foods, for the kinds of nourishing concoctions that people without many means developed—maybe on their own, maybe morphing the dish passed down to them by another wonderful cook.
Sometimes, that humble inventor’s name—or the name of someone they loved—got itself attached to the dish they perfected.
And I love the treat, once in a while, of the fine and the fancy. But when the high feasting days are over, it’s a comfort to go back to soups and stews and casseroles—to go hopping and slopping and skipping through the cookbooks.
It’s a comfort and a pleasure to celebrate the abundance of an everyday dish.