When we arrive at Emily Meggett’s tidy yellow home on Edisto Island, South Carolina, Ms. Emily, as everyone calls her, is waiting at the side door, eager to start cooking with us. Guests are not welcome at her home, only friends and family, but Ms. Emily is quick to tell us that everyone who walks through her front gate instantly becomes friends and family.
The Matriarch of Edisto Island Divulges the Secrets to Hoppin’ John
After a warm greeting, Ms. Emily and Cook’s Country Editor in Chief Toni Tipton-Martin approach the kitchen counter to begin making hoppin’ John based on a recipe from Ms. Emily’s cookbook, The New York Times best seller Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island (2022).
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The house is filled with the aromas of smoky bacon slowly simmering with cabbage on the stovetop and chicken thighs braising in the oven. Ms. Emily begins dispensing kitchen wisdom as quickly as she’d hand a stranger a warm biscuit.
“A little sugar in the cabbage takes away the bitterness—about 1 tablespoon per head of cabbage.”
And, “Spooning the cooking liquid over chicken helps the skin brown.”
Ms. Emily hands Toni a knife and places a fresh ham hock on the cutting board in front of her. “Split the ham hock in half,” she says, turning the hock upright. “Cut close to the bone.” Toni complies and easily splits the hock in two.
At 90 years old, Ms. Emily is the undisputed queen of Edisto Island, a place she has called home for her entire life. She often drives around the island handing out meals to friends and those who can’t provide for themselves due to illness or financial hardship. At Christmas she drops off lima beans to islanders she calls her “little people.”
When she brings her car to the mechanic, the trunk is filled with hot meals, and in return she’s charged nothing for the repairs. She insists that there is something special about Edisto Island. “Across the [McKinley] bridge is a little bit of heaven. Everybody here loves everybody.”
Standing at the kitchen sink, Ms. Emily rinses her Sea Island red peas in three changes of water, each time pouring off the peas that float to the surface. “Floating peas are dead peas,” she says. “Keep rinsing until the peas don’t float.” She adds the peas to a large pot and covers them with plenty of water. She rinses Toni’s split ham hock in two changes of water to “remove the blood” before also adding it to the pot. The peas simmer for just over an hour until they’re tender.
In the meantime, Ms. Emily turns her attention to a hunk of skin-on salt pork on her cutting board. She prefers the salt pork to bacon in her hoppin’ John. As a child, she says, when her family didn’t have salt on hand, they used to scrape the salt off a hunk of salt pork to season their grits. She grabs a long-bladed knife and walks over to the wood-fired cast-iron stove at the end of her kitchen. She runs the knife blade along the top of the stove to hone its edge. Then she cuts the salt pork into ¾-inch pieces and rinses it to remove its excess salt.
Hoppin' JohnThis hearty, humble dish of rice, black-eyed peas, and ham hocks takes hours to cook. Could we hop a little faster?
The base for the hoppin’ John begins with frying the salt pork. Ms. Emily keeps a quart-size stainless-steel container in the middle of the stove filled with oil that’s been recycled from previous batches of fried chicken, rendered bacon, crisped salt pork, and the like. She submerges the salt pork in a very generous cup of this oil in a saucepan, covers the pot to contain the violent splatter that ensues, and shallow-fries it until crisp.
All four burners and the oven are working now, and she’s as calm as a seasoned line cook, moving with purpose and sure of her steps.
She barks out loving, quick commands to her kitchen helpers: “Rinse this.” “Hand me that pot.” “Chop this onion.” Her friends and family will tell you, “She doesn’t play around in the kitchen.” Amid it all, she opens the oven door to baste the chicken once more. “You cook your chicken twice when you cover it, so don’t cover it.” More kitchen wisdom.
When the pork is done rendering, a good bit of the oil goes back into the can. Later, some of it will be used to fry chicken with a coating of flour so light that it’s barely noticeable against the impossibly crisp skin.
Next, Ms. Emily reaches into a bag of precut scallions and onions and adds them to the rendered salt pork. They cook for a few minutes before she pours in the cooked red peas and water and brings the mixture to a simmer. She stirs in a few teaspoons of Nature’s Seasons, a seasoning blend that contains garlic and onion powders that she swears by and uses frequently.
When she finally adds the rice, she does it by eye and feel. Ms. Emily tips the bag of rice and pours it into the pot, unconcerned about whether a little too much accidentally slides in. She stirs the pot a few times and then calls Toni over to feel the “heaviness” of the rice as she pulls the spoon through it. Ms. Emily will tell you that she cooks with her “brain, heart, and hands.” Gauging the weight of the rice through the peas is all muscle memory for her.
The mixture simmers for only about 10 minutes before the rice overtakes the peas and absorbs most of the liquid. At this stage, Ms. Emily pulls out her treasured secret weapon: a Charleston Rice Steamer, a large pot with a slightly smaller insert that allows steam in through holes. Water goes into the larger bottom pot and creates steam when heated. She transfers the hoppin’ John to the steamer insert and steams the rice for a good 30 minutes. This is a far more gentle process for cooking rice and more forgiving than constant direct heat on the stovetop. These rice steamers are no longer in production and she cherishes her collection of them.
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Before she closes the steamer, Ms. Emily reaches for the stainless-steel container on the stovetop once again and spoons some of the blended fat over the rice for flavor, since she’s not using a smoked hock. It’s one of her hoppin’ John secrets, and she touches her finger to her lips to indicate as much.
While the hoppin’ John steams, Ms. Emily insists on stirring it with only a two-pronged carving fork, which she now wields like a wand as she moves through the kitchen.
The finished hoppin’ John is the best any of us have ever tasted, a blend of rich pork; sweet onion; and earthy peas nestled among tender, fluffy grains of rice. It’s substantial enough to eat on its own, but Ms. Emily serves it to us alongside the cabbage and braised chicken, as well as a batch of fried chicken she started amid all the other cooking. She seems unstoppable. When she’s done feeding us, Ms. Emily heads outside to plant okra seeds in her garden.
As we exit through the side door, Ms. Emily’s daughter says that if this door is open it means that her mother has food to offer—biscuits, cornbread, rice—and anyone is welcome to stop by. As Ms. Emily and Toni hug goodbye, Ms. Emily puts her hands on Toni’s shoulders and looks her squarely in the eyes. “Next time you come through that front gate, you come through like family.”