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Hopping John and Its Surprising Connection to Jambalaya

Celebrating Survival with Food and Dance

Anthony F. Buccini

Hopping John is not thought of as a typical New York dish and, to be sure, its origins are to be sought in the South of the United States where, as discussed at length by CHNY co-founder Karen Hess, in her book, The Carolina Rice Kitchen, it is a dish with especially deep roots in the Low Country of the Carolinas and neighboring Georgia, where rice production flourished by dint not only of the slave labor of Africans but also thanks to their deep knowledge of rice cultivation. The rice cookery that developed in that region also drew heavily on traditional knowledge brought to America by Africans and undoubtedly benefited further from local invention by black cooks in various settings.

New York has had an African/African-American presence since its earliest days as a town under Dutch rule, when it was Nieuw-Amsterdam, but, as in the case of so many northern cities, New York’s black population increased dramatically after the Civil War and the Great Migration from the South; since that time, African-Americans have always formed one of the city’s largest ethnic groups. Though blacks from South Carolina headed to many northern cities, a particularly large number from the old rice country chose New York as their northern destination and, just as Neapolitans brought their pizza and eastern European Jews their bagels to New York, African Americans of the South brought, among other dishes, their Hopping John, which remains a beloved dish in the community and for many families an integral part of their New Year’s celebrations. Like so many of the best things to eat, Hopping John has very humble origins and a long history; it also has a name which has defied historical explanation.

A recipe for Hopping John in The Carolina Housewife by Sarah Rutledge (Library of Congress Katherine Golden Bitting Collection On Gastronomy)

The first recipes attested for two of America’s most iconic regional dishes appeared at almost the same time in the mid-nineteenth century.1 In 1847, Sarah Rutledge, a member of South Carolina’s social elite, included a recipe for ‘Hopping John’ featuring bacon, ‘red peas’, and rice in her cookbook The Carolina Housewife. Just two years later, Solon Robinson of Alabama, a regular contributor to the journal American Agriculturist, published a short article entitled “Recipes for the Ladies,” which includes the earliest known mention of jambalaya, the Gulf Coast stew of chicken to which rice is added and cooked; Robinson calls the dish “jambalaya”, but does so only parenthetically, following the recipe’s main title, “Hopping Johnny”. This puzzling equivalence of the names Hopping John(ny) and jambalaya begs explanation and holds the key to finally giving the name “Hopping John” a plausible etymology. In this paper I argue that Hopping John arose in a bilingual context, most likely in coastal Alabama, in the contact zone between black speakers of both Louisiana French Creole and English and is, in fact, a calque in English of a folk-etymological interpretation of the word “jambalaya” in French Creole. The full etymology of “Hopping John” necessarily begins with the etymology of “jambalaya”.

 1. The Origins of Jambalaya and its Name

While a great many of the traditional dishes of the Creole and Cajun cuisines of Louisiana bear names that are clearly French in origin, two of the most emblematic dishes of southern Louisianan cookery do not.2 Gumbo bears a name that is without question of African origin. The Bantu word, ki-ngombo, designates one of the principal and characteristic ingredients of the dish, okra. The process by which this dish was developed is, unsurprisingly, obscure, but we can at least say with certainty that it represents a coalescence of influences within the colonial setting and that the role Africans played was central. In the case of jambalaya, most food writers have been inclined to see in the dish and its name the product of a similarly complex development within the colonial setting but, in particular, also to reject the idea that the dish is in any meaningful sense French in origin. There are two principal reasons for this: first, the name “jambalaya” is clearly not a word belonging natively to standard French or to its regional and social variants in the north of France; second, rice is a principal ingredient in jambalaya, and rice is generally not believed to have been a common element in the traditional cookery of France in the time leading up to the establishment of her American colonies.

Current Views on the Origins of Jambalaya

Given these two reasons not to look to France for the origins of jambalaya, food writers have almost all championed either of two theories that invoke other possible influences present in colonial Louisiana. According to one of these theories, the dish is Spanish in origin, a claim based on its general similarity to Spain’s famous paella: both are preparations which include a base of aromatics and a variable set of proteins (meats and/or seafood) to which rice and liquid are added to finish the dish. “Jambalaya” is not a Spanish (Castilian) word, nor is there evidence for it being a Catalan word 3 but a (pseudo-)etymology, now commonly cited, was proposed to fit the theory: it claims that “jambalaya” is a compound of the French word for ham, jambon, with paella. Unfortunately, this explanation fails on several points, the most important of which are that: a) the syntax of the compound is wrong for Spanish and French (one should expect paella de/au jambon) and b) the proposed etymology presupposes a dish in which ham is the principal ingredient, which is not the case in the overwhelming majority of recorded early recipes for jambalaya. From a sociohistorical standpoint too, the support for this theory is weak: though Spain owned Louisiana for more than thirty years, Spanish settlement in the colony was very limited and comprised largely of Canary Islanders, not Valencians.

None of the proposed etymologies are, however, at all convincing, including the most widely cited, which posits again a compound formed in Louisianan French of jambon with a West African word for rice, either yaya or ya.

A second, somewhat more compelling scenario for the origins of jambalaya is that it represents an element of culinary continuity for the enslaved West Africans in Louisiana, many of whom came from regions where rice was a staple food and were engaged in the cultivation of rice in the colony. From a culinary standpoint, we know from later times that dishes similar to jambalaya are widely known and much loved in large swaths of West Africa, and there is every reason to believe that such preparations were enjoyed by West Africans in the colonial period. It is, therefore, not unreasonable that a number of writers have attempted to find the source of the name “jambalaya” in some West African language. None of the proposed etymologies are, however, at all convincing, including the most widely cited, which posits again a compound formed in Louisianan French of jambon with a West African word for rice, either yaya or ya. 4 Thus jambon à la yais claimed to have yielded ultimately “jambalaya”. Here too, however, one of the same objections raised against the putative compound jambon + paella must be raised: early recipes for jambalaya show it to be normally a dish in which ham is a common, but not universal, flavoring, while the principal ingredient is almost always chicken or some other fowl. In addition, there is no evidence for the word “ya” having been borrowed into Louisiana’s French colonial dialect nor into the related Louisiana French Creole language.

While the great majority of food writers see jambalaya as deriving either from Spain’s paella or now most commonly from West African traditions of composed rice dishes, two have given consideration to the possibility of the dish being of French (in the broader sense) origin and more specifically of Provençal origin. Karen Hess (1992:64ff.), in her book on Carolina Low Country cooking, briefly discusses jambalaya in the context of the history of the pelaus, or pilafs, of bourgeois and elite cookery in Provence, but ultimately arrives at no convincing conclusions regarding the origins of either the dish or its name. More recently, Andrew Sigal (2007) has offered an excellent though ultimately inconclusive discussion of the history of jambalaya. In his view, the name “jambalaya” should be considered Provençal, though his analysis of the name itself, despite going well beyond previous analyses, is limited, and with regard specifically to the origins of the dish he is cautiously noncommittal, given the shortcomings of the evidence at his disposal and his reluctance to engage in the sort of speculation that so often mars food history (p.115).

The Southern French Origins of Jambalaya and Its Name

Hess and Sigal were correct in suggesting that the Gulf Coast’s jambalaya is most likely of Provençal origin, but neither was able to demonstrate that to be the case. Of course, were there some clear and direct evidence one could uncover—a recipe or overt textual reference from France before the colonization of Louisiana—it would most likely have been found by now. Instead, one must look for circumstantial evidence that justifies continued research and ultimately forms a sufficiently convincing case. My case for the southern French origins of jambalaya and its name is indeed circumstantial but built on a large body of linguistic, culinary, and sociohistorical evidence that renders speculative theories relying on bogus etymologies untenable. The central arguments are laid out in detail in Buccini 2017, and a central part of the overall etymology relies further on arguments presented in Buccini 2006. In this context, we will briefly highlight the main points.

Frederic Mistral by Paul J. Sain (Wikimedia Commons)

The very first attestation of a form of “jambalaya” from southern France is in a poetic text by Chailan published in 1837, just ten years before its appearance in the recipe by Robinson, but in a figurative, rather than culinary, sense of ‘disorderly crowd, rabble’ (cf. Sigal 2007:104–105). It next appears some thirty years later in a poem by Peise (1973 [1865]:178) where it is glossed in the text itself with the French word macédoine, meaning a ‘dish of mixed vegetables’ but here figuratively employed to mean ‘hotchpotch’. Soon thereafter, Mistral (1878/2003:152), in his magnificent and massive dictionary of Provençal (and other varieties of Occitan), includes an entry for the word under the heading “jambalaia, jabalaia, jambaraia” with citations from the aforementioned poems by Chailan and Peise. In defining the word, however, he gives first a meaning that clearly corresponds to the use of “jambalaya” in the American Gulf Coast region, followed by others: Ragoût de riz avec une volaille, macédoine, méli-mélo, cohue, that is, ‘stew of rice with a fowl’; macédoine: ‘(a dish of) mixed vegetables (figuratively also jumble or hotchpotch)’; méli-mélo: ‘hotchpotch’; cohue: ‘disorderly crowd’. Though Sigal translates macédoine here as I do, he does not explore the significance of this further culinary sense of “jambalaia”, which is of central importance.

Forms of “jambalaya” are also marginally attested in Provençal dialects in the twentieth century (Buccini 2017:111). Interestingly, of the two culinary senses mentioned by Mistral, it is the “macédoine”, or ‘vegetable stew’ sense which is best attested. In the dialects of Toulon and Menton, that is the sense, and as was surely the meaning Mistral had in mind, the reference is to summer vegetable stews of the sort best known in the Anglophone world from the version of Nice, ratatouille in French, or ratatouia in Nissart dialect. 5 No less interesting is the fact that jambalaia is also attested from Nice (Compan 1967:125), appearing in a dialect lexicon in the section on food, and within that, it appears toward the end of a list of dishes which are all based on various forms of offal with the parenthetical gloss “la ratatouille frite”, clearly invoking the old sense (rather than the modern sense of ‘summer vegetable stew’) of the word “ratatouille”, which was used as a pejorative (real or jocular) of a stew involving offal or leftovers and ultimately also vegetable stews. Twentieth-century references to “jambalaia” in the sense of Mistral’s first meaning, clearly related to the dish of Gulf Coast fame, are more problematic, as they may be based just on Mistral’s reference with recourse to non-traditional knowledge deriving from Louisiana. The most likely of such recent references to reflect a traditional use of the name “jambalaya” in connection with a recipe of the Louisiana ilk is Jouveau 1990:140. In summary, between Mistral and other reliable sources, we have attested for Provence in the last two centuries uses of forms of cognates of Louisiana’s “jambalaya” in reference to: 1) a dish resembling the Gulf Coast dish; 2) a vegetable stew probably consistently of the ratatouille-type; 3) some manner of ‘bad stew’, likely involving offal. Nonetheless, the word was marginal in this period.

It has been suggested by some that the nineteenth-century Provençal references to jambalaya are all to be explained as diffusion from the Gulf Coast back to southern France, and as interesting as that question is, it has no real bearing on the origins of “jambalaya” in light of the following evidence.6 Though no form of “jambalaya” is attested in southern France before Chailan, there are attested two culinary terms that are clearly related and likely secondary to “‘jambalaia”; that is, their existence strongly suggests that “jambalaia” had existed before them.

The first and most important of these is jambineto, attested in Mistral and two further dictionaries—Achard 1785 (jambinetto) and Honnorat 1846–1847 (jambineta)—which lack entries for jambalaia. 7 All three give a definition of a stew composed of very small birds, with Achard offering that the birds are “taken from the nest and cooked in a pot with lard [i.e. bacon].” The definitions also seem to allow for the name being applied to other stews, with the small bird version being the best known or most typical.

The second is a word first attested in a dictionary of the Languedocian dialect of Occitan, spoken just to the west of Provençal (de Sauvages 1756:256): jhimbëlôto, defined as a kind of stew made with “blanquetes d’Agneau” and also the leftovers of a gigot of lamb, thus, with leftovers included potentially a ‘bad stew’, a sort of ‘ratatouille’ in the old sense of the word and thus semantically not far from one application of the term “jambalaia”. This same word under different spelling appears in the ‘South French’ dictionary of Azais (1876:337) as gimbeloto, described as a stew of hare or rabbit pieces. It is very likely that these forms are reformations of an original jambeloto.8

While the Neapolitan word almost certainly bore the sense of ‘a peasant stew of offal’ at the time of its diffusion, both the Neapolitan word and the Catalan dialect derivatives later made a semantic shift to indicating summer vegetable stews of the ratatouille-type.

These two words appear then to share a root, jamb-, to which have been added different complex suffixes with a first, semantically neutral element and a second, diminutive element, namely, -in-eto and -el-oto. The existence of such diminutives implies the preexistence of a base form and, analyzing the word “jambalaya” from this perspective, we have an excellent candidate, namely jamb-+-al-+-alha, again with a neutral suffix followed by, in this case, a very well attested collective suffix with a pejorative connotation. But what then is this root jamb-?

In Buccini 2017:112ff. I argue that the root jamb- is not a native Occitan one but rather enters the language first as part of a word borrowed from the Neapolitan dialect of southern Italy, namely, ciambotta, presumably during the late Middle Ages. The same word was also borrowed into the Catalan of the Balearic Islands, yielding tombet, and a variant of the Neapolitan word, cianfotta, was in parallel fashion borrowed into the mainland dialects of Catalan, yielding xamfaina/samfaina. In all these cases of borrowing, we see phonological adaptation of the initial consonant and also substitution of the Neapolitan form’s suffix with native suffixes. In addition, while the Neapolitan word almost certainly bore the sense of ‘a peasant stew of offal’ at the time of its diffusion, both the Neapolitan word and the Catalan dialect derivatives later made a semantic shift to indicating summer vegetable stews of the ratatouille-type. The family of Occitan words just discussed fits perfectly into this scenario, with parallel phonological and morphological adaptations, and regarding the semantics, we see the same pejorative connotation of the Neapolitan source-word, a tie to offal, and in at least some places in coastal Provence, ultimately a shift of the word to denote summer vegetable stews.

We see then that although jambalaia is not attested in Occitan before or during the period when the French Louisiana colony was founded, there is strong evidence that it had existed and that the word finds in Occitan a proper etymology with wide links around the western Mediterranean.

More on ‘Jambalaia’ in Southern France and a Clue to Its Link to Hopping John

It is striking that in the early (pre-Mistral) Occitan dialect dictionaries where we find entries for “jambineta” and “jimbeloto”, there is none for any form resembling “jambalaia”. In part this gap in the record could be the result of chance, that the authors simply did not know the word, which existed in some local dialects outside their ken. There is, however, mention in some of these dictionaries of a term which, I believe, had replaced “jambalaia” in a good part of Occitan territory, to wit, soupo courto, literally ‘short soup’. The term still exists in Occitan and, despite the name, refers not really to a soup but to a stew which, once cooked, is finished by adding enough water to allow for the cooking of a starch—typically pasta or rice—in the pot with the stew; the same cooking method is attested with other stew-like preparations known under other names, such as rougnounado and carbounado, as far back as the early seventeenth century. Nowadays in Provence, the term is used most often in reference to lamb stews stretched with pasta.

A modern-day jambalaya with sausage and chicken. (Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans via Wikimedia Commons)

In three of the pre-Mistral Provençal dictionaries and in Mistral as well, soupo courto is consistently described as a soup of abatis as the primary sense, “abatis” meaning the trimmings of a butchered fowl—wings, tail, feet, giblets.9 The question arises: was the cryptic listing of “jambalaia” among offal dishes in Compan’s Nissart lexicon a reference to a stew of abatis? And a second question: is the version of jambalaya featuring abatis from Mobile in 1878 (“jam bolaya”), one of the earliest recorded Gulf Coast recipes, an archaic, poor man’s version harkening back to the southern French original (GCCB, p. 57)? In other words, can it be that the original “jambalaia came to be so often made as a “soupo courto, stretched with pasta or rice, that the latter name started to replace the former, but not before, in the first decades of the eighteenth century, some southern French colonist on the Gulf Coast who still used the older name introduced the dish to his fellow colonists? 10 If so, that colonist must have been happy to find rice (though not pasta) available in Louisiana to stretch his dish. We call attention to the important fact that in this period, rice was a common food among the non-elite social classes of southern France, produced locally in both coastal Languedoc and Provence (Buccini 2017:114–115).

While the name “jambalaia” was apparently almost completely replaced in Provence with the name “soupo courto” (with the dish subsequently perhaps becoming less popular), in neighboring Languedoc I believe people took a different path. 11 There we find today a still very popular stew of abatis of various birds (chicken, goose, duck), made with pork products and stretched with turnips or potatoes, which bears the name ragoût d’escoubilles. Escoubilles is the Frenchified form of the Occitan word escoubilho/escoubiho meaning ‘sweepings, garbage’, a collective derived from the verb escouba ‘to sweep’ and corresponds to the actual French word with the same meanings, balayures, derived from the verb balayer ‘to sweep’. I believe this name came about as a folk-etymological reinterpretation of the older, opaque name “jambalaya” in the bilingual context (Occitan/French) of southern France in the nineteenth century. It seems one or more bilingual speakers in Languedoc reanalysed “jambalaya” as jam(b) + balaya through association of the sound of the latter part with the French verb balayer ‘to sweep’ and its derivative balayures ‘sweepings’; translated into Occitan, one arrives at a colorful, jocularly deprecating, and very local name for a humble food associated with local identity and the new name resonated with ever-wider circles of people in the region (Buccini 2017:116-117). That such a folk-etymological interpretation of “jambalaya” by French-speakers potentially exists is confirmed by a commonly cited and obviously untrue just-so story that purports to explain the creation of jambalaya, both the name and the dish, in Louisiana: a guest arriving at an inn in New Orleans late in the evening was informed that the kitchen’s offerings were all sold out, so the guest said to the chef ‘John, sweep something together!’—in French Jean, balayez!—and the satisfied guest then bestowed this phrase on the improvised stew of chicken stretched with rice that Chef Jean had made him.

2. From “Jambalaya” to “Hopping John”

Bearing in mind this just-so story for the name “jambalaya”, let us turn to the name of the other iconic regional dish of the American South under consideration here, that of Hopping John. Originally a supremely simple preparation of field or cow peas, cured pork, and rice, modern versions are typically elaborated with various aromatics and seasonings, and black-eyed peas are the legume most widely used today; in the Low Country there remain those who prefer local legume varieties and relatively simple recipes which strongly resemble the first one recorded, namely the aforementioned recipe from Sarah Rutledge (1847:83) which includes only bacon, ‘red peas’, and rice, and for seasoning, salt, pepper, and (optionally) fresh mint (cf. Thorne 1996:283ff.; Taylor 2011).

Black-eyed peas, a key ingredient in Hopping John (Sanjay Ach via Wikimedia Commons)

“Hopping John” first enters the written record in the 1830s and appears in only a handful of texts until well after the Civil War, when it then becomes regularly mentioned in descriptions of southern life, described in cookbooks, and included in dictionaries of Americanisms, but already in the early references to the dish, it is clear that it was widespread and very popular.

West African Tastes Filtered through Plantation-Imposed Privation

Our very first recipe attested for Hopping John mentioned above was written by a member of South Carolina’s social and economic elite, of course a white person, and from this we must presume that to some degree at least this dish was consumed with pleasure by other people of her station. The one earlier textual reference to the dish that we know of comes from a fictional scene in a novel, written by a New Englander who had moved to South Carolina with her clergyman husband a decade or so before publishing the book in the late 1830s. What we can ascertain from this passage is that, again, the dish was well known to well-off whites and probably consumed by them, but it was a dish regarded as being too humble to be appropriately served to unfamiliar guests (Gilman 1838:124). Another early reference to Hopping John sheds some light on why the dish, aside from its extreme simplicity and commonplace ingredients, may have been at once enjoyed by all classes but also bore a certain stigma; Olmsted (1861[1856]:506–507), in describing landless whites mired in poverty and held in lowest esteem by well-off whites, says: “Their chief sustenance is a porridge of cow-peas, and the greatest luxury with which they are acquainted is a stew of bacon and peas, with red pepper, which they call ‘Hopping John’.”

Clearly, already in the first half of the nineteenth century, white people in South Carolina—rich and poor—ate Hopping John. For various reasons we lack direct textual evidence from this period of its consumption by African Americans, but there is a lot of material, including later texts, to show that the dish was beloved by the enslaved population of at least part of the South and also by enslaved and freed blacks in other colonial settings. A well-known and striking reference to Hopping John is found in the memoirs of ex-slave Jacob Stroyer (1885:10–11). Recalling his childhood on a plantation in central South Carolina during the 1850s, he observed that during the summer, when the very young slaves were living together away from the main part of the plantation, they were fed routinely with just boiled corn mush served with sour milk or molasses, but on Sundays their parents would visit: “Among the many desirable things our parents brought us, the most delightful was cow pease, rice and a piece of bacon, cooked together; the mixture was called by the slaves ‘hopping John’.”

Living conditions for slaves varied considerably in different places and over time. Under the best of conditions, slaves were able to live as family units with certain staple foods allotted them by their owners but also had plots of land on which to grow supplementary food and raise some animals (chicken, rabbits, pigs) for consumption or sale. Some had enough time free from plantation work to tend to their own land and also to hunt, fish, and forage for further food items (Otto & Burns 1983:189ff.).

Unfortunately, for a great many slaves, especially on large plantations, their alimentation was not so varied, and they were forced to rely to a high degree on a limited set of foods produced communally or supplied by the owners. Since the overriding goal of slave-ownership was profit, cutting corners with regard to both the quality and quantity of food distributed to slaves was common; having slaves supplement their own diets was one cost-cutting strategy, though it could also diminish the time slaves were working directly for the owners’ profit. But owners did also have to take into account the health of the slaves with regard to their ability to do the work for which they had been enslaved. Both slavers and owners observed that the people they exploited generally fared better when they were fed foods with which they had been familiar in their African homelands, and in this way, a number of edible plants native to Africa were imported to the New World and became staples on the plantations of the Americas (Buccini 2016:6). Among the African foods brought to the Americas and regularly served on slave ships and plantations were the cow and field peas central to Hopping John (Twitty 2012:26). Slavers and plantation managers spent little effort to make these foods any more than edible, but enslaved Africans did, and once they had any control over their own cooking, they surely soon found ways, even with the most limited ingredients and seasonings, to make them delicious, drawing on their remembered knowledge of their own African culinary cultures and incorporating new foods encountered in the colonies.

Hopping John exemplifies this process, having as its base the combination of legume and rice that was widely enjoyed in the Old World, as well as hot pepper as principal seasoning, an item that, though originally a New World food, had long been nativized in large swaths of Africa after the Portuguese had introduced it there in the earliest stages of the creation of the “Atlantic World” (Osseo-Asare 2005:25). Bacon, as well as other forms of salted meats and fish, was one of the staples of plantation life in North America and elsewhere, supplied regularly, though meagerly, by slave owners as a source of protein to keep their workforce productive, but its role in Hopping John undoubtedly has long had analogues in rice-and-pea dishes of West African cookery (Hess citing J.Harris, 1992:101).

Hopping John Analogues in Saint-Domingue and Louisiana

While the African heritage of Hopping John seems indisputable, the origins of its name are obscure; it is, in fact, the sort of name that usually resists etymologizing, bearing no discernible connection to its presumable West African origins, nor to the ingredients or cooking method. In other words, it appears to have been the product of the linguistic imagination and folksy poetics of some anonymous person in a long forgotten situation. Naturally, some have been inspired to fill in the gap and invent possible but unconvincing post-factum just-so stories, and the most widely circulated etymologies are of this sort. For example, one asserts that there was a crippled African American who sold the dish on the streets of Charleston, and it was his name that was transferred to the dish; another claims the name derives from the behavior of children who would hop around the dinner table in anticipation of the beloved dish. More formal attempts to provide an etymology have been no less unconvincing. A widely cited theory asserts that ‘Hopping John’ is somehow a “corruption” of the French pois pigeons (‘pigeon peas’). A particularly infelicitous attempt at an etymology for “Hopping John” was proffered by Hess in her otherwise outstanding book on the Carolina rice kitchen (1992:98ff.): through pseudo-linguistic legerdemain she derives ‘Hopping John’ from a fanciful Hindi-Malay compound bahaṭṭa kāchang of her own invention.

One of the close analogues of the Anglophone South’s “Hopping John” belongs to the cookery of the Gulf Coast and is called in Louisiana French jambalaya au congri(s), that is, ‘jambalaya with congri(s)’; the dish is also called in Louisiana French Creole jambalaya defèv (‘bean jambalaya’) and simply kongri (Valdman 1998), conceivably made with any kind of bean but traditionally made specifically with field peas. This term congri is nowadays best known from Cuban Spanish, where it is the name of the staple rice-and-bean dish of the eastern part of the island (congrí), but it is also a dialect word in Haitian Creole, where it is an adjective meaning ‘with beans’ (Buccini 2016:3–4). Various unsatisfactory African etymologies for this word have been proposed, but in 2014 I presented in a conference paper a new French etymology that better fits the linguistic and historical facts:12 it is in origin simply the Haitian Creole form of the French adjective congru (with regular un-rounding of the French front-rounded vowel), extracted from the phrase la portion congrue, meaning ‘the minimum appropriate portion’ and by extension an ‘unfairly meager portion’. The Haitian use must have arisen in the context of plantation kitchens, where the usual ration of a basic starch (corn, millet, cassava, rice) was occasionally augmented with boiled legumes. The presence of the word in Cuba is then surely the result of the diaspora of white landowners and their slaves from Saint-Domingue in the wake of the first wave of the Haitian Revolution (early 1790s), many of whom settled for a time in eastern Cuba before moving elsewhere, including to Louisiana. The Haitian Creole word congri may have been introduced to the Gulf Coast in this manner, though it may have spread there earlier, as the two French colonies were in regular contact. In any event, the Gulf Coast use of jambalaya au congri and jambalaya defèv perhaps indicates that the term “jambalaya” had shifted conceptually in Louisiana from its original southern French sense of a specific kind of stew made of abatis (or with a fowl), which was commonly stretched with a starch, to the new colonial sense of the combination of a seasoned stew of fowl or other principal ingredients necessarily with rice added, before the name “jambalaya au congri” for the rice and field pea dish was coined, and so could take on the name “jambalaya” with qualification.

Early references to jambalaya au congri are far fewer than those to jambalaya tout court, but a recipe appears in one of the first regional cookbooks of southern Louisiana, namely the Picayune’s publication (1901:182), a recipe composed only of rice, cowpeas, salted meat and a little ham. Also noteworthy here is the entry for “jumballaya a la Creole” in Eustis’ recipe collection (1903:13), to which the following comment is added: “Hopping John is made in the same way with small pieces of fried ham, fried sausages, to which you add some cow peas that have been partially boiled. The St. Domingo Congris is like the Hopping John.” Eustis, though born in France, was raised in New Orleans and her mother was a native French Louisianan; later in life, she moved to South Carolina and perhaps there first encountered Hopping John, which for her was essentially the same dish as the “congris” she knew, perhaps through contacts with refugees in the US from Saint-Domingue. It is also clear that for her, congri/Hopping John was conceptually related to jambalaya, presumably on account of the fact that these dishes involved the cooking of rice in the same pot with the stew involved.

‘La Mobille’ and the Alabaman Connection

We began this paper calling attention to the strange fact that the very first attested recipe for jambalaya bears that name only as a parenthetical alternate to the name “Hopping Johnny”, which is in fact also one of the earliest attestations of that name in a culinary context. Robinson’s recipe is a fairly simple version of jambalaya, a stew of just onions and chicken browned with butter, seasoned with hot pepper and parsley, and stretched with rice; conspicuously absent is any mention of field peas or any other legume that we would expect in a dish called Hopping Johnny.

It is of central significance that Robinson was writing from Alabama. 13 Throughout colonial times and on into the nineteenth century, Alabama was a region of contact between the Francophone community of the Gulf Coast and the ever-expanding southern Anglophone community from the Carolinas and Georgia. In this regard, we should remember that Mobile was the original capital of French Louisiana and, though the French population was never large, its presence in the south of Alabama was long-lived, where a black French Creole-speaking community survived as late as the first half of the twentieth century (Marshall 1991:74). There are strong reasons to believe that dishes of field or cow peas with rice (and cured pork) were known among African Americans on both sides of the French(-Creole)/English linguistic divide, as was the case elsewhere in the former English colonies (Jamaica, Bahamas), where this dish is known simply as “rice and peas”. We might then conjecture that in the Anglophone South, the dish also originally had no distinctive name. 14 Thus, when French Creole and English-speaking blacks encountered one another in Alabama and recognized the essential identity of their rice and pea dishes, the Creole-speakers’ jambalaya au congri stood out. Under such circumstances, a typical outcome would be that the English-speakers would simply borrow the more colorful French Creole name of the dish, perhaps simplifying it by using either just “jambalaya” or “congri” but, of course, the Southern English name for rice and peas is neither of those, but rather “Hopping John”.

Both slavers and owners observed that the people they exploited generally fared better when they were fed foods with which they had been familiar in their African homelands, and in this way, a number of edible plants native to Africa were imported to the New World and became staples on the plantations of the Americas.

Given the above background, we can now present an explanation for the name “Hopping John”. If we recall the just-so story for the invention of the dish and the name “jambalaya” from the phrase Jean, balayez! I believe we can see a similar, intentionally humorous, folk etymology at work but one which involves both reanalysis and then translation, much as we suggested for the replacement of “jambalaia by (ragoût d’) escoubilles in Languedoc. I suggest that “Hopping John” is derived from a jocular reanalysis of “jambalaya” as the Louisiana French Creole phrase Jan bale, pronounced jãmbalé (accent on the final vowel /e/), which we gloss as ‘John the dancer’ or ‘John who dances’. We might also gloss this phrase as ‘dancing John’ or, to use an archaic synonym of ‘dance’, as ‘Hopping John’, as in the phrase “Let’s go to the hop!”

What then do we make of Solon Robinson’s puzzling use of “Hopping Johnny” to refer to what is obviously a dish of chicken jambalaya? It would seem that in Alabama, for some stretch of time in the early to mid-nineteenth century, the reinterpretation and translation of “jambalaya” to Jan bale to “Hopping John(ny)” had been taken up and generalized, and for at least some English-speakers, the way to render in their language any use of “jambalaya” would be as “Hopping John(ny)”.

‘Jean Petit qui danse’, Hopping John, and the Jamboree

This conjecture would not be a very strong explanation of “Hopping John” unless there were some motivation for Alabaman French Creole speakers and their Anglophone neighbors to associate the dish of peas, pork, and rice with dancing; fortunately, there are excellent reasons to do so. To begin, one recalls that while whites also ate jambalaya au congri and Hopping John, there is clear evidence that this sort of rice and pea dish was particularly associated with, and popular among, the slave communities of Louisiana, Saint-Domingue and parts of the American South. Slave narratives from the southeast attest to the popularity of Hopping John and to its common association with social events such as “cornshuckings” and Sunday evening gatherings where music and dance were central activities. In the New Orleans area, dancing by slaves was by law restricted to Sundays (Fearon 1819:277) when, in addition to more purely social gatherings, there were also Voodoo services, most famously at Congo Square but surely realized similarly elsewhere, including in all likelihood Mobile. 15 Music and dancing were central in the practice of Voodoo, as were ritual offerings of food, including specifically jambalaya au congri, to various gods.16 In very general terms, there were noteworthy similarities in the expression of African cultural elements—both profane and sacred—through music, dance, and food at Sunday gatherings of slaves (and freed blacks) in the Anglophone South and in the French colonies of Louisiana and Saint-Domingue.

But were that not enough, there was also a direct motivation for speakers of Gulf Coast French Creole to associate the specific name “jambalaya” with dancing, a reason to come up with the aforementioned reanalysis to Jan bale ‘dancing or hopping John’. Throughout French colonial America, there was an extremely widely known and popular character of folktales whose name was “Petit Jean”, and stories featuring this figure have been recorded from the northwest of Canada to the Caribbean. In addition, there was during the colonial period a song that was associated with the hero of the folktales, which was widely known in the American French colonies, especially where there were significant influences from the south of France, as was the case in both Saint-Domingue and Louisiana.17 The name of this song in French is Jean Petit qui danse, that is literally, ‘Little John who dances’ or, put another way, ‘Hopping Johnny’.

Yet further support for my claim is my etymology of the word “jamboree”,, which according to all standard dictionaries is of “unknown origin.” Indeed, in my view, both “Hopping John” and “jamboree” were likely coined in roughly the same place and period, namely in southern Alabama near the beginning of the nineteenth century, in a context of increasing Anglo-French Creole contact and at a time which would allow for the prior creation of the name “jambalaia au congri” after the influx of Saint-Domingue refugees to Louisiana and also leave ample time for the term “Hopping John” to diffuse through the southeast before its first attestations. “Jamboree” is then the word “jambalaya” borrowed and phonologically adapted into the English of Anglophone African-American communities of the southeast, clearly akin to some variants of “jambalaya” attested from areas peripheral to the French-speaking Gulf Coast or from non-French-speakers, most notably “jumberlie” and “jambolin” (from Alabama and Mississippi/Missouri; Buccini 2017:110), which are phonologically very close to “jamboree”, still with the original culinary sense but closely related to the form(s) which coalesced as “jamboree”. In support of this claim, we note that some of the earliest attestations of the word “jamboree”, generally extremely racist in nature, render it clear that the word was in origin associated with African-American social gatherings where music, dance, and revelry were noteworthy, e.g. (McKee 1873:6)18


Massa told us to-day,

There was no work, so we might play,

So with the bones and the tambo we,

Hoop up the dance and jambaree.

In origin, a jamboree was a festive gathering of African Americans where music and dance were featured and jambalaya (au congri), a.k.a Hopping John, was enjoyed.


Much of the focus of food history has been on the culinary behavior of the elites of literate societies. That focus has been natural, in that the easiest and most direct way to study the foodways of the past is through texts, which have usually been produced by the elite class. The study of non-elite foodways, until fairly recently so underrepresented in texts, requires to a far greater degree reconstruction based on indirect evidence. Central to such reconstruction is the often limited linguistic material we have to work with: properly researched, linguistically informed etymologies are especially crucial to advancing our understanding of non-elite foodways of the past, as I hope to have demonstrated above.

In this paper, we have traced the origins of two iconic American regional dishes, and in the course of doing so, we have shown how one goes back clearly to a southern French peasant dish and the other to an African dish developed by enslaved people under the harshest of circumstances. It seems most appropriate that the histories of these two dishes and their names became intertwined, bringing together not just culinary items but also music and dance. It also seems quite natural that the dishes discussed here have become regional culinary icons; as Karen Hess (1992:103) said, “earthier dishes of the rural poor —or of fishermen in coastal areas—would occasionally be adopted by the local aristocracy and become a genuine regional dish, transcending lines of class, and even race, to a point where it came to typify the region in a way that its more elegant dishes could not.”


Works Cited

Achard, Claude-François. 1785. Dictionnaire de la Provence et du Comté-Vanaissin. Marseille: Mossy.

Angelo. 1880. The Adventures of an Atom. New York: Hurst.

Arnoux, Carle. 1940. Breviàri dóu gènt parla prouvençau. Toulon. Online:

Azaïs, Gabriel. 1876. Dictionnaire des idiomes romans du midi de la France, Vol 2. Paris: Maisonneuve.

Buccini, Anthony F 2006. “Western Mediterranean Vegetable Stews and the Integration of Culinary Exotica.” In: Hosking, Richard (ed.), Authenticity in the Kitchen. Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2005, 132–145. Totnes: Prospect.

______. 2016. “From Kongri to Diri ak Djondjon: Slavery, Creolisation and Culinary Genesis in Saint-Domingue and Independent Haiti.” Proceedings of the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, May, 2016. Online at the DGS website:

______. 2017. “Un vrai jambalaya – ‘A Real Mess’: The Southern French Origins of Louisiana’s Famous Dish.” In: McWilliams, Mark (ed.), Offal: Rejected and Reclaimed Food. Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2016, pp. 105–120. Totnes: Prospect.

Compan, André. 1967. Glossaire raisonné de la langue niçoise. Nice: Tiranty.

David, Martine, & Anne-Marie Delrieu. 1984. Aux sources des chansons populaires. Paris: Belin.

Eustis, Célestine. 1903. Cooking in Old Créole Days. New York: Russell.

Fearon, Henry Bradshaw. 1819. Sketches of America. London: Longman.

GCBC = Gulf City Cook Book. 1878. (Ladies of the St. Francis Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Mobile, Alabama.) Dayton: United Brethren.

Gilman, Caroline. 1838. Recollections of a Southern Matron. New York: Harper.

Hess, Karen. 1992. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press.

Honnorat, Simon-Jude. 1846–1847. Dictionnaire Provençal-Français (3 vols.). Digne: Repos.

Jouveau, René. 1990. La cuisine provençale de tradition populaire. Aix: Paul Roubaud.

Marshall, Margaret M. 1991. “The Creole of Mon Louis Island, Alabama, and the Louisiana Connection.” Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 6:73–87.

McKee, Andy. 1873. McKee and Rogers’ Rebecca Jane Songster. Baltimore: Denison.

Mistral, Frédéric. 1979 [1879–1886]. Lou trésor dóu Felibrige ou dictionnaire provençal-francais (vol. 2, G–Z). Barcelona: Marcel Petit.

Olmsted, Frederick Law. 1861 [1856]. A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. New York: Mason.

Osseo-Asare, Fran. 2005. Food Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa. Westport: Greenwood.

Otto, John Solomon, & Augustus Marion Burns III. 1983. “Black Folks and Poor Buckras: Archeological Evidence of Slave and Overseer Living Conditions.” Journal of Black Studies 14:185–200.

Peise, F. 1973 [1865]. Leis Talounados de Barjomau. Draguignan: Latil.

Pinn, Anthony, et al. (eds.). 2009. African American Religious Cultures. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Pellas, Sauveur-André. 1723. Dictionnaire provençal et françois. Avignon: Offray.

The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book. 1901. New Orleans: The Picayune.

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Robinson, Solon. 1849. “Recipes for the Ladies.” American Agriculturist 8 (May 1849), no. 5, p.161.

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Sauvages, Pierre Augustin Boissier de. 1756. Dictionnaire languedocien-françois, Nîmes: Michel Gaude.

Sigal, Andrew. 2007. “Jambalaya by Any Other Name.” Petits Propos Culinaires 84: 101–119.

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  1. I am grateful to Culinary Historians of New York for supporting this project with the Scholar’s Grant. Many thanks to Amy Dahlstrom for her suggestions and criticisms and also to Ari Ariel for his patience and editorial input. I dedicate this paper to the memory of my father, Ernest, who passed away during its preparation.
  2. The discussion of the history of jambalaya here is based on the more detailed treatment in Buccini 2017.
  3. Catalan is the language spoken in the region of Valencia, whence the dish paella hails.
  4. The Dan language of the Mande family does have a word ya meaning ‘cooked rice’.
  5. These stews are remarkable for having as their principal ingredients primarily or exclusively vegetables imported to the Mediterranean in the late Middle Ages or Early Modern period: Asian eggplant and New World tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, sometimes also potatoes and/or green beans; see further Buccini 2006. All surely began as peasant dishes. Note that in the south of France, they are locally known under names other than ratatouille/ratatouia, e.g. boumiano (‘Gypsy’) and jambalaia/jambalaio. Here it would do well to point out there is variation regarding the representation of the final unaccented vowel in many of the forms discussed here, in part due to differing spelling systems (conservative or traditional vs. spellings that try to reflect popular pronunciation) and with that also different dialect developments; some dialects have undergone a regular sound change of final unaccented -a to -o (in some cases even to -u) while others retain the original -a. Also note that the variation between the Louisiana spelling of “jambalaya” with ‘-y-’ as opposed to Provençal spellings with ‘-i-’ is purely orthographical.
  6. Such suggestions have been made on the basis of no specific facts, but only to bolster the weak theories of Spanish or African origins of the dish and its name. Based on linguistic evidence, I believe there was such backwash from the (former) colony to the metropole; see further below.
  7. Sigal (2007:106) deserves credit for bringing two of these references to jambineto into the discussion but, though he suspects they may be relevant to the history of jambalaya, he is unable to explain how. It should be noted that jambineto seems to have vanished in later times, at least from cookbooks and any internet-findable resources, yet it resurfaces in an episode of Julie Andrieu’s television show Les Carnets de Julie (season 1, Marseille episode, aired 15 June 2013), used by a fisherman in French form, jambinette to refer to an octopus stew. A fine demonstration of how dialect terms can long remain out of sight and also how they can drift in meaning over time.
  8. The differing vowel of the first syllable warrants explanation. Briefly, one notes that we find a close parallel of a replaced by i in some dialects of the south in reflexes of the unrelated but phonologically analogous Italian loanword ciambella (‘ring-shaped pastry’), appearing in Provençal as both jambeleto and gimbeleto (cf. French gimblette). In my view, jhimbëlôto/gimbeloto likely reflect a local reformation of an older jambeloto and bear clear semantic ties to jambalaya (and jambineto), as a ‘bad stew’ and, as defined by Azais, a stew made from a small animal cut into pieces. Motivation for this alteration was surely folk-etymological blending, perhaps with gibié ‘(small) game’ or with the etymologically related (northern) French word gibelet ‘dish of small birds’ (attested from the thirteenth century), which itself is the source of the English word for abatis, ‘giblet’ (Rey et al. 2006:1587).
  9. These dictionaries are: Pellas 1723, Achard 1785, Azais 1876, and Mistral 1979 (1879–1886).
  10. In this regard, the date of the first attestation of “soupo courto” as a (stretched) stew of abatis Pellas 1723, is highly significant: when Louisiana was first being colonized, the term “soupo courto seems already to be well along in replacing our presumed older “jambalaia”.
  11. I believe “jambalaia largely died out in Provence already by the early eighteenth century, and the forms in Mistral and the poems, as well as Compan’s Nissart form, reflect reborrowings of the word into Provençal from Louisiana: unnoticed by Sigal or others is the fact that these attestations of the word are all of masculine gender, rather than the expected feminine, and moreover have medial -i- and final -a even in Mistral, who regularly has etymologically correct ‑lh- and regularly represents the sound change of unstressed -a to -o. The gender shift and the two phonological features lead me to suspect that what was borrowed back into Provence, likely in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century was a Louisiana French Creole (a language without grammatical gender) reflex of the old Provençal word, and the word was assigned the default masculine gender when reentering Provençal. Nonetheless, it remains quite possible that our proposed jambalalha lived on continuously in isolated pockets; note that the Toulonais form recorded with the sense ‘vegetable stew’ has final -o and appears to be feminine (Arnoux 1940, sec. 30). I will discuss this and other cases of cultural borrowing from the colonies back to the south of France in detail in a future publication.
  12. Un vrai jambalaia ‘A True Mess’: The Complex Etymologies of Jambalaia and Hoppin’ John in their Transatlantic Historical Context.” Presented at Atlantic World Foodways Conference, UNC-Greensboro, February 1, 2014.
  13. Sigal (2007:109) astutely noticed and wondered aloud about the place of Alabama in the history of jambalaya but concludes: “Unfortunately, this is another clue that has been lost.”
  14. Also widely encountered is ‘peas and rice’. In the Bahamas there exists, moreover, the name “Hopping John” for a related dish, but I must treat the significance of this evidence elsewhere.
  15. Though Voodoo is best known from New Orleans, it clearly was practiced elsewhere in the Mississippi valley and along the Gulf Coast, including Mobile (Pinn et al. 2009:429–430).
  16. Tallant (1946:22ff.) mentions “congris” no less than six times in the course of his descriptions of Voodoo practices in New Orleans, both as an offering at ceremonies and for other purposes; clearly, the dish had important religious associations, and this is in my opinion likely also indirectly reflected in the abiding association of Hopping John with New Year’s celebrations and good fortune in the coming year in the Anglophone South.
  17. Noteworthy is the report of a slave-owner in Saint-Domingue having his slaves taught this song (David & Delrieu 1984:165).
  18. Cf. Angelo 1880:142, replete with offensive language. The word “jamboree” must have spread to the north of the US in the wake of the Civil War.

Anthony F. Buccini received his B.A. from Columbia University and his PhD. in Germanic Linguistics from Cornell University; he formerly taught in the department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and the department of Linguistics of the University of Chicago. His research and publications have focused on the Germanic, Romance, and Celtic languages, pidgin and creole studies, historical linguistics, dialectology, and language contact. In addition, he has long been active in the field of food history with his publications focusing primarily on problems in the development of Mediterranean and Atlantic World cuisines viewed in their broader sociohistorical contexts and often employing linguistic methodology and evidence. Buccini is a regular participant in the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and has twice been awarded the Sophie Coe Prize in Food History (2005, 2018).

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Hopping John and Its Surprising Connection to Jambalaya

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