May peas be with you

Crook's Corner's chef Bill Smith. The restaurant has been open for over 30 years and received an American Classic award from the James Beard Foundation in 2011. Photo by Takaaki Iwabu

Crook’s Corner’s chef Bill Smith. The restaurant has been open for over 30 years and received an American Classic award from the James Beard Foundation in 2011. Photo by Takaaki Iwabu


by Dean McCord

It all started at Crook’s Corner. My obsession with rice and peas, tomatoes and cheese, bacon and onions, and, of course, a topping of scallions.  Mmmmm. Hoppin’ John. It’s quite simple really, a rustic assembly of everyday items that is transformed into a dish greater than the sum of its parts. And ever since I first had it in the Chapel Hill-based pantheon of Southern cooking in 1985, I crave it. A lot. But for some reason, I only make it once a year, on New Year’s Day, when we have to have the black-eyed peas for luck and collards for money for the coming year.

I’m the only one who eats collards, other than my friend, Lynn, but just about everyone else wants the Hoppin’ John. Except they really don’t. See, no one really wants it the way I do. One child doesn’t want the bacon. Another family member dislikes scallions. Heck, a couple of kids don’t really like the peas, but would I mind making a rice, bacon, cheese and tomato mix so they can partake, too? Of course I make it, because it’s easy to do so, and it’s New Year’s. Their pea-free dish isn’t hoppin’ John, it’s more of a “Limpin’ Joe”, and I’m sad that they’re not really experiencing the true dish, but I’m also happy that their own version makes them happy.

Hoppin’ John and shrimp and grits were the two dishes that truly introduced me to Southern food, both of them low country dishes from South Carolina that Bill Neal popularized at Crook’s. I had a pretty good feeling that the shrimp and grits was going to be good, because the restaurant had developed its reputation in large part due to this traditional fisherman’s breakfast.

But I had no expectation of Hoppin’ John.

I was a boy from rural Pennsylvania, never having had a black-eyed pea in my life (I had started to develop a liking of grits, however). I also think it was the name, which made absolutely no sense, that led me to order the dish. I remember sitting alone at Crook’s, barely old enough to park my butt on an actual bar stool, and having a conversation with Mr. Neal. I don’t remember why I was even at Crook’s, let alone being there by myself, because I sure didn’t have a lot of money, working as a lab tech while finishing up my degree. But this individual, known by many as the Godfather of Southern Cooking, took the time to comment about my food. Maybe he didn’t see many young men eat by themselves at the bar, or maybe he just was in a talkative mood. I didn’t even know who he was, but he took the time to talk to me, and I was changed forever. I feel like I remember the passion he had in his food, in its history and cultural impact. But as I reflect back to that day – when I had my food epiphany, if you will –  I’m not sure if I actually sensed his excitement at that time, or if I’m making it up based on my own subsequent enthusiasm, a sort of revisionist history.

Not that I really care, because ever since that time, I have been obsessed with Crook’s. And now, nearly 30 years later, one of my closest friends is Bill Smith, the current chef at Crook’s Corner, who is a culinary genius in his own right. I met Smith because of my love of Southern food, because of Crook’s, because of Hoppin’ John.

Smith is quiet, humble, generous and so very loyal. He loves his cooks and flies to Mexico to attend their weddings and children’s christenings. I travel with him more than anyone other than my family, and I treasure the time we spend together. Bill has never said a bad word about me, and he’ll listen to anything I have to say. Never judging, just being a friend. And if I’m at Crook’s, I love his version of Hoppin’ John. He might even add some country ham. And I enjoy it so much not just because it takes me back three decades to when I became such a food enthusiast, but also because the dish is very similar to our friendship: simple, honest, uncomplicated.

And so, on Jan. 1, 2015, I’ll be making my beloved dish for my family. Some of it with bacon, some without. Most without scallions. And even some without peas. Because it’s the beginning of a new year, a time for reflection of the past twelve months and for making hopeful resolutions for the coming year. It’s a time for family and celebration and joy. It’s a time to reach out to friends, reminding them of their importance. So don’t forget to put a few more peas in your life this year – you never know where it might take you or the friendships it will create.