I've been working in the South a bit this year, so I thought I'd explore some of their traditional dishes. In some cases I'd tried these before, but I went back and sampled them again, both to give disappointing kinds another chance, and to revisit ones that I found palatable. Specifically, I'm reviewing hoppin' Johns, butter beans, boiled peanuts, sweet tea, Coca-Cola with peanuts in it, and Moon Pies. And, as usual, I chose items that I didn't have to prepare, both because I hate cooking, and since I'm currently staying in a hotel I don't have access to a full kitchen.
Hoppin' Johns are traditionally made with blackeye peas, rice, onions, bacon, and salt. Other common ingredients include green peppers, sausage, ham hocks, spices, and red cowpeas instead of the blackeye ones. The derivation of the name isn't conclusively known. One explanation is that it's a corruption of the Haitian Creole word for blackeye peas. It also possibly has a unfortunate connection with the West African slave trade, as it was sometimes fed to the poor kidnapped souls traveling to the endless Hell of bondage in the U.S. Moving to non-depressing things, there are a couple of whimsical traditions incorporating hoppin Johns on New Years Day. In one it's served on that day to bring good luck for the year. A coin may be placed in the pot. Greens on the side represent American currency. Corn bread on the side represents gold. In another practice a diner leaves 3 blackye peas on their plate after finishing a serving of hoppin' Johns, to ensure good luck, fortune, and romance in the coming year. And a Cuban variant of this dish which substitutes Cuban black beans for the blackeye peas is evidently known as "hoppin' Juans." Finally, a website I consulted postulates that the hoppin Johns served in the past were superior to the modern kind because they used red cowpeas instead of blackeye peas, prepared the rice differently, and used better bacon flavoring.
I was surprised to learn that butter beans are a type of lima bean. Namely, a yellow, flat version of them. This family of beans is also called a Madagascar bean, for reasons I couldn't discover--I mean, I'm guessing that some kinds are grown on that island, but I couldn't find out the specific details. Lima beans were first grown in the Andean region of South America, in 2000 B.C. And these beans are toxic if they're not boiled for at least 10 minutes.
Boiled peanuts are simply, peanuts boiled in a salt water solution. Sometime, Old Bay seasoning, ham hocks, hot sauce, or even beer are added for flavoring. The peanuts used are either "green" (uncooked, undehydrated peanuts) or "raw" (uncooked, but dehydrated and then rehydrated peanuts). It's thought to have started as a way to use surplus and unsold peanuts after harvest time. This concoction is especially popular in Southeastern Virginia to Florida, Mississippi, and even Ohio. But then boiled peanuts are popular in many places around the world, including South America, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa. Some research suggests that boiling may denature some of the proteins that cause the extreme reaction in peanut allergy sufferers. Although this hasn't been conclusively proven, so don't throw out your EpiPens and chow down on boiled peanuts if you have that particular condition. Boiled peanuts are also the official snack food of South Carolina since 2006.
Sweet tea is produced by adding sugar (or sometimes syrup) to a bag of black tea brewing in hot water. The resulting beverage is then chilled and served as a sweeter version of iced tea. Many kinds have twice the sugar of a serving of Coca-Cola. The recipe formerly used green tea, but switched to black tea during World War II, when the American sources for green tea were controlled by the Japanese, and the only viable substitute was the tea grown in British-controlled India.
The Coke with peanuts in it I only learned about recently. Apparently a former boss of mine liked to do this, too. After reading up on it online, it seems to be a Southern tradition, especially in rural farming areas. It's apparently almost a type of sports drink or Gatorade, a way to get salt back into you while enjoying a cold beverage on a hot day. Or a way to get a snack and a drink all in one convenient package. Various accounts included several kinds of soft drink bases, but RC Cola and particularly Coke were the most popular. Since Coke was the easiest soda to get, too, I went with that.
Moon Pies are the one item in this post whose history is definitively known, and which comes from one business. They're made by Chattanooga Bakery, out of the town of the same name in Tennessee. In fact, they're celebrating their centennial this year, as they were "born" on April 29, 1917. Moon Pies are two disc-shaped graham crackers, dipped in chocolate, vanilla, banana, strawberry, or salted caramel coatings, with marshmallow filling in between. Or orange and coconut cracker dips during Mardi Gras. There's also a double decker version using three graham crackers, and two layers of filling. Earl Mitchell, Jr., says that his father got the idea for this dessert by asking a Kentucky miner what his ideal snack would be, and being told it would involve graham crackers and marshmallow "as big as the moon." Hence the main ingredients, and the name. A Moon Pie and a RC Cola was also known as the "working man's lunch" in parts of the South. The town of Mobile, Alabama drops a giant metal Moon Pie to signify the start of the New Year, a Southern version of the famous Ball dropping in New York's Times Square. There's an annual Moon Pie festival in Belt Buckle, Tennessee, and an annual Moon Pie eating contest in Bessemer, Alabama. The current record for consuming these treats is held by Matt Stonie, who downed 73 single Moon Pies in 8 minutes on October, 14, 2017 in Memphis Tennessee. Similar desserts, or more unkindly, ripoffs of Moon Pies include Scooter Pies, Marshmallow Pies, and Mallomars in the U.S., Wagon Wheels in the U.K., Canada, and Australia, Choco Pies in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, Mamut and Rocko in Mexico, Halley in Turkey, Bimbo in Egypt, and Alfajor in Argentina.
But let's move on to my impression of all these items.
1) Hoppin' Johns. I had the 14.5 ounce (411 gram) can from Margaret Holmes, distributed by McCall Farms out of South Carolina. This was yet another variant on the tradition, as there was no rice in them. Also, there were peppers, tomatoes, garlic powder, and several other flavorings and preservatives. I didn't like this. I'm evidently not a huge fan of blackeye peas, and overall I thought the hoppin Johns were very dry, and not tasty. I didn't finish the can.
2) Butter beans. These came from Glory Foods, out of Columbus, Ohio, and once again came from a 14.5 ounce (411 gram) can. They were largish (about an inch by .5 inch, or 2.5 cm. by about 1.25 cm.) yellowish beans. I had some cold, and some warmed up in the microwave. They were alright, maybe a tad bland. With Taco Bell sauce they were quite good, and that's how I finished them. When I learned they were a type of Lima bean I was very shocked, as Lima beans are one of my least favorite foods. Either the slight variance with that bean makes a lot of difference, or else my tastes are changing in my middle age.
3) Boiled peanuts. I bought a 13.5 ounce/ 378 gram can from Peanut Patch, which was once again distributed by McCall Farms out of SC. The can claims they are, "Delicious chilled, heated, or right out of the can." Also, it notes that these peanuts are non-GMO, gluten-free, protein rich, and contain no artificial colors or flavors. I had boiled peanuts years ago, and absolutely hated them. These were somewhat better, but still pretty bad. They were peanuts, some still in their shells, floating in brine. They were way too overly salty. I love peanuts plain, and peanut butter, and in desserts and entrees, etc., so it's very difficult to mess this food up for me. But boiled peanuts managed. I could only stomach a few, and didn't even come close to finishing the can.
4) Sweet tea. I had several options, so I chose the one made in the South, specifically the Gold Peak line of the Coco-Cola company, from Atlanta Georgia. This was a 16.9 ounce/500 ml. bottle, and was made with real sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. As with the boiled peanuts, I'd had this before, years ago in a restaurant. I found it much too sweet, and didn't enjoy it. The Gold Peak was okay, but not great. It was sweet, but not ridiculously so like the other example. Maybe because it was a Coke product it's not considered "authentic." I'm not a big iced tea guy, and when I do indulge I'll probably stick with a flavored Snapple or something, instead of sweet tea.
5) Coke and peanuts. As per online recommendations, I opted for a Coca-Cola made in Mexico, so it was made with sugar and not corn syrup. Also, happily the local supermarket sold these in glass bottles, rather than plastic ones. Finally, I was able to get a sleeve of peanuts from the Lance company (Snyders-Lance, actually, but still pretty traditional) out of Charlotte, North Carolina. I followed the serving instructions and drank a little off the top, and then poured in the peanuts. They sparked a little fizzing. I then consumed the result fairly rapidly so the peanuts didn't get soggy. The result was alright--the salt of the peanuts contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the soda. I like honey-roasted peanuts, for example, as another sweet and salty peanut snack. So this was not a bad combo, even if it seems and looks a little weird.
6) Moon Pies. I found this in a vending machine in a laundromat. It was a chocolate double decker kind, 2.75 ounces/78 grams. The chocolate-coated graham cracker discs were about 4 inches in diameter (about 10 cm.) This dessert was also decent, but unspectacular. I'm rather "meh" about marshmallow in general, so there's that. Also, the sweetness was fairly overpowering. I don't think I could have eaten another--it would have been too cloying.
Therefore, to sum up, of these 6 consumables I liked 1, thought 3 were okay, and disliked 2. And, amazing to me, my favorite of the bunch was the cousin of the Lima bean!