Hoppin’ John Taylor unearths the meaning of the mysterious word “vigareets” from the nineteenth-century cookbook What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking , previously thought to be the first cookbook written by an African American. Originally published in 1881, the book was released in facsimile in 1995, with historical notes by the culinary scholar Karen Hess, who was unable to ascertain the meaning of the word, which was used to name a type of croquette. Using technical skills and mechanical history, rather than more traditional etymological and culinary historical analysis, Taylor explains the name of the dish and places it in a historical context of women's issues, printing, and slang.
“Hoppin' John” Taylor describes the historical and literary antecedents of his namesake dish. He doubts the culinary historian Karen Hess's theoretical conclusions, but agrees that the pilau of cowpeas ( Vigna unguiculata ) and rice came to the lowcountry, the coastal plain of South Carolina, with the slave trade from West Africa. Hoppin’ john is eaten on New Year's for good luck. The dish and tradition spread from lowcountry rice plantations throughout the South. He demonstrates how culinary traditions lingered in the lowcountry long after rice was no longer grown there. Deconstructing the dish, Taylor describes the often maddening nomenclature, both scientific and common, of Vigna , the blackeyes, crowders, field peas, or southern peas used in the dish, as well as the traditional companion planting methods of both West Africans and Native Americans. He cites historical nineteenth-century published materials, including the recipe that appeared in The Carolina Housewife in 1847, as well as the mention of the dish by the well-known twentieth-century literary authors, Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams. Rice and legumes form complete proteins, making the dish highly nutritional.
Food writer John Martin Taylor reflects on his relationship with the recently (2007) deceased culinary historian Karen Hess, who was his mentor and friend. He compares their circuitous paths to the food world, and the similarities of their approaches to, and ideas about, the field. Taylor describes their meeting and her continued inspiration to him through the twenty-three years of their friendship.