It's unclear when black-eyed peas began to be used in the recipe. Historically, people have used the terms cowpeas, field peas, and black-eyed peas interchangeably. Technically speaking, they are not peas but rather beans belonging to the species Vigna unguiculata. They're often called crowder peas because of the way the beans crowd together in the pod. Like their paler cousins, red cowpeas have a black eye in the center and are sometimes referred to as red black-eyed peas.
Although decidedly African in origin, Hoppin' John's is included in cookbooks like Sarah Rutledge's The Carolina Housewife. The daughter of Governor Edward Rutledge, signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of Charleston's elite planter society, Rutledge writes that even prior to the Civil War, the dish was eaten in the Lowcountry of South Carolina by both African American and white residents of all classes. By the turn of the 20th century, it had become a prominent feature on Charleston New Year's menus. The meal for President William Howard Taft's visit to the city in November 1909 consisted of a dinner of rice pilau, okra soup, and Hoppin' John.
Eating Hoppin' John on New Year's Day was the established tradition, and Southerners kept it going even when the original ingredients were not available. During the mid-20th century, Hoppin' John began to be introduced to the rest of the country when recipes for the dish were published in dozens of cookbooks and hundreds of newspapers across the nation. Until the 1960's, most recipes outside of Charleston spelled Hoppin' John as Hopping John and called for black-eyed peas instead of red cowpeas. This may have been due to practicality since cow peas were well known in the South but not easily obtained in the rest of the country.
Later recipes specified that the rice and peas should be cooked separately and combined at the end. This was probably easier for cooks who were not familiar with the Carolina way of cooking rice. It also meant that the rice was not permeated with the savory flavor of the bacon broth. As a result, 20th century recipes began to add other ingredients to boost flavor. During the depression, Hoppin' John was frequently promoted by the federal government as well as by numerous home economists because it kept families well-fed for little cost. Cheap and plentiful rice and beans were a natural choice.
Since then, cooks have taken numerous measures to try to impart a little flavor to Hoppin' John recipes. Some of today's most popular recipes have become fairly elaborate. Emeril Legasse's version includes a ham hock along with sautéed onions, celery, green peppers, garlic, and the peas cooked in chicken stock with bay leaves and thyme. Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman, uses 12 ingredients in her recipe. Several decades ago, a group of food lovers noticed that an important food legacy was being lost and initiated a movement to revive the use of heirloom vegetables and grains as well as heritage animal breeds and the preservation of traditional methods and recipes.
I come from a long line of Southern cooks. The recipe below is from Marion Flexner's Out of Kentucky Kitchens (1944), a cookbook I inherited from my mother. However you make your Hoppin' John, you're carrying on a long Southern tradition that's steeped in history and folklore.
Above photo is mine
(Credits: The Carolina Housewife-facsimile, AndrewsMcmell Books, 1991; https://www.southernliving.com/food/holidays-occasions/new-years-recipes-traditions/hoppin-john; http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/12/southern-hoppin-john-new-years-tradition.html; photos (top to bottom): [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected])