Monday, March 5, 2012

Reviving Hoppin' John

Last week, I saw a fascinating Charlie Rose interview with Chef Sean Brock, whom I'd never heard of. Brock grew up in rural Virgina in a place so poor and off the beaten track that it had no restaurants and few supermarkets. People had to grow and cook their own food. A sort of reverse food desert, if you will. It was a blessing in disguise. He and his neighbors retained the skills and connection to the earth that most Americans have lost.

Brock now owns and operates Husk in Charleston, S.C. where he is credited with reinventing southern food. A more accurate description would be rediscovering, even rescuing food of the South. Instead of Paula Deen's artery-clogging slop, Brock has a passion for vegetables, so much so that he has a garden tattooed the length of his arm. He described to Charlie the joy and reverence he feels each morning waking up to a cornucopia of produce stretching from his upper arm to his wrist.

I was especially taken with Brock's description of a dish called Hoppin' John. Consisting of peas, rice, onions, bacon and salt, I'd never heard of it. Simple, but supposedly excellent. Hoppin' John, he said, is a classic of Low Country cuisine, a style of cooking that grew out of rice cultivation in South Carolina's coastal plains.

Brock recalled his disappointment when he tried his first bowl of Hoppin' John. He thought that perhaps he had a bad batch and tried another restaurant. Its offering was equally tasteless. Upon further research, he realized that the problem wasn't the recipe. It was the ingredients. The right type of rice, the correct cultivar of beans, had become endangered. He realized that Low Country cuisine would have to be rebuilt from the soil up and set out to do so.

A fascinating interview with a fascinating man. We need many more like him.