Black History Month: Connecting Food, History, Culture, and Nutrition

Feb 9, 2021 | Matrix News

Black History Month: Connecting Food, History, Culture, and Nutrition.

By Kelli Wall, RDN

February 8, 2021

“Our story is told by our plates”- Chef Michael Twitty, Culinary Historian

Soul Food is an ethnic cuisine, traditionally prepared and eaten by African/Black Americans of the Southern United States. Origins date back during American Slavery, where enslaved Africans were only given only “undesirable” and “left over” cuts of meat from the white slave owners or “Masters”.  According to culinary historian, Chef Michael Twitty, enslaved Africans were not allowed to own cattle or hogs except for chickens and guinea fowl (brought from Africa). Owning small garden plots behind their cabins, the enslaved were only able to tend their crops during early dawn, twilight, and at night because they worked in the fields from sunup to sundown (PBS News Hour, 2017, 03:15-05:21).

The one-pot recipe, Hoppin’ John, is a soul food staple consisting of spices, field peas or cowpeas, rice, and ham hocks. Hoppin’ John was originated by enslaved Africans from rice growing West African countries, who cultivated the grain in low country of the American Southeast (Cummings-Yeates, 2020). Now, black eyed peas are commonly used in the dish but any type of legume such as red beans or navy bean will do. Peas are derived from the same family as beans, which are packed with fiber and protein. Fiber helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check (Harvard School of Public Health, 2019). Substitute ham hocks (pork knuckle) with bacon or Turkey. Protein is an essential nutrient and without it, we are at risk for protein deficiency and malnutrition range in severity from growth failure and loss of muscle mass to decrease immunity, weakening of the heart and respiratory system, and death (Harvard School of Public Health, 2020). Traditionally, Hoppin’ John is to be eaten for good luck on New Year’s Day along with greens (so you have money) according to Dr. Rafia Zafar (HEC Culture, 2019, 03:15-05:21)

Hoppin’ John Recipe

Courtesy of Thomas Baker, Gullah Geechee Catering

· 1 lb. dried field peas, either cowpeas, red peas, or black-eyed peas (Note that red peas stay firmer than black-eyed peas)

· 1 ½ lbs. smoked meat (turkey tails, turkey wings)

· 2 cups long-grain rice (not converted rice)

· 2 tsp. of sea salt

· 2 tsp. paprika

· 2 tsp. garlic

· ½ tsp. black pepper

· ½ stick of butter

· 2 cups water

1. Bring the water, meat, and peas to a boil in a large pot. You want the meat tenderized and the peas firm, not mushy. If the beans start to thicken and look like a chili, you have overcooked them.

2. Reduce to a simmer and add sea salt, paprika, garlic, and black pepper. Wash the rice until the water is clear, then add the rice to the pot. There should be more rice in the pot than water because you can always add more but you can’t take it away if the rice gets waterlogged. (Too much water makes the rice split in half; instead, it should be whole and grainy.) One finger above the rice is how high the water should be.

3. Add the butter to the pot, which will help keep the grains separate. Simmer the pot for 15-20 minutes, turning the rice with a fork occasionally so that each grain is cooked. Serve immediately.


Cummings-Yeates, R. (2020, February 25). A brief history of Hoppin’ John, the soul food classic that brings good luck. The Takeout.

Harvard School of Public Health. (2019, October 28). Fiber. The Nutrition Source.

Harvard School of Public Health. (2020, October 19). Protein. The Nutrition Source.

HEC Culture. (2019, November 5). Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meanings [Video]. YouTube.

PBS News Hour. (2017, August 1). A feast of African-American culinary contributions, baked into the South’s DNA [Video]. YouTube.