It was New Year’s Eve, 1999 and everyone was abuzz with the nervous energy of the coming festivities and the looming shadow of the dreaded Y2K bug that the media had us all in a frenzy over. Everyone was worried about their “digital footprint” being erased, all their pertinent information being compromised and other such dreadful scenarios as their minds could conjure. Things at the Hilltop House weren’t quite so worrisome. The old hotel had yet to go digital, and still relied heavily on the old ways of pen and paper, books and reservation cards and a simple phone call to make a reservation. (when was the last time you did that?!) While other hotels were worried about their computer systems crashing and fizzing out at midnight, the employees of the Hilltop were more worried that they wouldn’t have enough bacon, biscuits and gravy for the morning breakfast rush. Myself and the Sous Chef, Damien were working on getting things ready for the morning, prepping trays of bacon and getting things in order to ease our morning labors, when Chef Bill came through the porthole windowed double doors of the kitchen whistling a small southern tune.
“Boys, you ready fo’ yo’ new year’s eve party? Gonna go howl at the moon a little tonight are ya?” he asked in that ever familiar thick Cajun accent, his smile cutting through his dark skin and grey and black moustache.
Damien, his thick Jamaican accent sounding extremely out-of-place in the hilltop kitchen, smiled back. “Oh you know, Bill, just at home with the wife.”
I nodded. “Gonna stay outta trouble tonight myself Bill, stay at home, maybe have a whiskey…maybe…but I’m not going out tonight.”
“Well hell boys, sounds like you two dun went and grew up.” He said and clapped us both on the back in passing. He took off his Chef’s coat and hung it on a nearby coat hook revealing the threadbare and stained white(ish) t-shirt underneath. “You boys want sumthin’ to eat ‘afore ya’ leave?”
“Does the pope wear a funny hat?” I quipped and finished wrapping the tray of muffins I had in front of me before putting it away.
“He does, he does!” Damien said as we eagerly walked over to Chef Bill stirring something savory in a large steel pot.
The aroma, hidden subtly before by the lid over the pot, now ran through the kitchen unhindered. Notes of dark spices, salt, something…hammy…it smelled so good I forgot that I had eaten a scant few hours before and my belly rumbled with delight.
Bill’s smile got impossibly larger. “Y’all know what dat is don’t ya?”
Damien shook his head. “No, I don’t.” ha answered.
I numbly nodded my head, I could feel my mouth-watering as I peered past the steam that rose from the pot, enveloping my head like a lover’s embrace. “That…that’s Hoppin’ John.” I answered correctly inhaling deep the warm sumptuous mist. “That means there’s gotta be…” I turned and Chef Bill, as if on cue, opened the tall oven and pulled out a freshly baked cast iron skillet of cornbread. As he placed that on the stainless steel serving counter, with his free hand he pulled a pan of collared greens (complete with braised hog jowls and bacon) from the large steamer at the end of the line.
I smiled, of course Chef Bill would have this for new year’s eve dinner. He’s from the deep south, somewhere in Louisiana, and it was traditional. Chef Bill was a traditional southern gentleman to the core, and this, while it confused my Jamaican counterpart, was of no surprise to me.
Bill saw the look on Damien’s face. “It’s like dis boy…” he began to explain, “It’s a meal for good luck, fortune and health. We have it eeeeeeeevery year down home now. Lookie here…” he motioned us over. “Ya see de pig, he only roots forward, like we age…” he nudged and mumbled something to us both, but due to his THICK accent, to this day i have NO idea what he said. “…and dat’s why its a healthy thang. Now, dem collared greens s’posed to be like folding money, ya see?” He folded a leaf and then popped it in his mouth and chewed with delight. I could smell the vinegar lingering between us. Them dere stewed beans and what not…they s’posed to be like coins, alright? and de rice? well dat’s just good luck to keep yer belly filled all year long.” he finished and served us both up a huge helping of each one. The plates grew heavy under his ladle but we held on because it smelled SO good.
“And what about the cornbread?” Damien asked as Bill dropped an enormous chunk of the sweet-smelling bread on top.
“Well,” he paused to butter a chunk of it for himself. “My momma always said it was like gold, you know wealth in the year to come and what not…” he waved a piece in the air for emphasis. “My Daddy on the other hand said it was good for the likker from the hoppin’ john.” he dipped the golden corner into the juices that pooled on the plate and it absorbed it like a hungry sponge. The soft golden-yellow turned dark with the spice likker from the beans, rice and juices the commingled on the plate. Bill bit into the softened cornbread with a satisfied sigh and a soft roll of his eyes. “I tend to agree with my daddy.”
Ive had Hoppin’ John and cornbread almost every new year’s eve (and / or day) my entire life. And this I have to attribute to one grand old southern belle who has, whether by accident or design, has taught me the traditions of the old south. That lady is my mother, Carroll Easton…
It is important to note, that while Chef Bill’s cooking was superlative; when it came to southern style, home grown cooking, you can’t beat my momma’s hoppin’ john and cornbread.