Saturday, January 5, 2008

A lucky new year? It's a (Southern) food thing

We took so long photographing the tablescape of this traditional Southern New Year's meal, or "Hoppin' John," that the greens got a bit cold. But the flavors were still hot and ripe for the eating.

As the next step in my mission to explore and play up the downplayed, I turn to another little-understood topic: good ol' Southern cookin'.

Co-worker Beth calls it a traditional New Year's Day meal, or "Hoppin' John," a name derived either from mythology or etymology. (Who knows?) The components supposedly are separate paths to luck, all seemingly related to riches.
  • The greens (canned spinach here instead of collard greens) bring wealth in the form of greenbacks, because the greens are green. That's a no-brainer.
  • The black-eyed peas (beans with black eyes and cooked with ham and chopped onions) represent wealth in harvest, according to Beth's mother. Other people say they're wealth in coins because they look like little coins, and they plump when you cook 'em.
  • The ham hocks (the shank end of a pig's leg) usher in good health for the new year. But Beth actually served substitute ham hocks: chopped pieces of cooked ham. Hog jowls also are acceptable.
  • And the biscuits (crumbly and made of buttermilk) are the path to even more wealth through gold coins. (Are Southerners obsessed with money?) I asked, "Where's the co'n bread?" Indeed, she said corn bread would have been appropriate (corn = golden = gold coins), but she just decided to go with the biscuits.
Beth did all the cooking. I bought the candles: 26 cents at Walgreens, mainly because of the 75-percent-off-Christmas-stuff sale.

She was all about the tablescape. What's the saying? ... You eat with your eyes first?

I don't know about that, but it did look pretty. My poor indoor photography skills didn't do it justice. But don't my candles, above, look brilliant? The glass is full of sparkling grape juice. (Non-alcoholic, of course.)

Beth set the table with the knife blade facing out. "Shouldn't the blade be facing in?" I asked. We weren't sure, so I looked it up in the etiquette section of her Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (you know, the red and white checkered one). This is a Southern meal, so it should be proper. And sure enough, I was right. I switched the blades so they were facing the plate (after the above picture).

OK, enough with the stuff you can't eat.
  • Greens. We took so long to shoot the table that the spinach was a bit cool. Everything else retained the heat. But don't get me wrong: The greens were awesome. I love healthy food made unhealthy. This wasn't totally the case with the spinach greens: They were cooked with ham, so there was some fat added. They weren't quite like Paula Deen's collards simmered in bacon fat and buttah, plenty of buttah. But they were great nonetheless.
  • Black-eyed peas. The beans also were cooked with ham and a bit of onion. Southern flare isn't something you can measure. That only comes as a secret ingredient from the person cooking the food. Beth learned after the meal that they should be served on rice. But they were great all by themselves.
  • Ham. I'm not sure if I've ever had ham hocks. I love ham, but the hock is an unfamiliar cut of meat, except for my occasional exposure to it on the very-canceled "Emeril Live" show and some assorted Food Network programs. They weren't really hocks, just cut-up pieces of ham. But they were great. Ham can get tough if overcooked, especially when it's heated in a pan. This wasn't the case. There was no unwanted crust. The meat, cooked with onions, was tender and moist. I usually like mustard with my ham. No need for it here.
  • Biscuits. The biscuits were crumbly, as Southern biscuits should be, I was informed. They were made from the Southern-style biscuit mix at Publix. They were just as good as the ones I had at Mother's Restaurant in New Orleans.

From foreground clockwise, the ham hocks, beans and greens sit on a piece of fine china, with the fork properly placed on the napkin and the knife blade facing inward. The biscuits are in the distance.

For dessert, we had pound cake, which Beth proudly and successfully made with milk instead of water. I think Betty Crocker helped. She's from Minnesota, but oh well.

Days after the meal was consumed and subsequently disposed of, Beth asked, "Has your luck kicked in yet ... or run out?" I haven't been extremely lucky this new year, though I haven't purchased any lottery tickets. I haven't been unlucky, either. I haven't been robbed.

So I guess the real test of this meal is yet to come. Let's hope the meal's lucky outcomes can hold a candle to its taste.


Anonymous said...

Maybe you're not so ungrateful. Thank you for the kind words.


Yellow Blade said...
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Unknown said...
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