Happy New Year! As we ring it in, ring in some luck by indulging in New Year’s Day traditions. Here are several foods thought to be auspicious by cultures around the world:
Especially in the South, black-eyed peas are considered good luck. But this tradition may have begun as early as the Babylonian Talmud, where Jews are instructed to eat black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, to show humility. Another legend is traced to the Civil War, when Union troops raided Confederate food supplies during the Battle of Vicksburg. General Sherman’s Union army took everything except for the peas and salted pork, which were considered animal fodder. The Confederates survived the winter on these supplies, and considered themselves lucky for the meager rations. Today, many Southerners will eat a rice-and-peas dish called Hoppin’ John. The peas are thought to resemble coins, and a coin is sometimes added to the pot or left under the dinner bowls to bring good fortune.
Like black-eyed peas resembling coins, greens such as collards, cabbage, kale, or chard are thought lucky because they are the color of money. In Germany, sauerkraut is a traditional New Year’s food, often served with pork (more about that next). The Danish stew kale and sprinkle it with sugar and cinnamon. Collard greens and other soul foods which trace back to the era of slavery are also associated with New Year’s because Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
Pigs forage for their food, rooting themselves in the ground and pushing forward, not backward. (Similarly, some consider lobster an unlucky food, because it crawls backwards on the sea floor). Pork is considered symbolic of progress in many cultures, and due to its fat content, is also associated with wealth, abundance, and prosperity. In Cuba, Spain, Portugal, and Hungary, you may find roast suckling pig on New Year’s. In Austria, the table may be decorated with miniature pigs made of marzipan.
In Spain, the tradition of eating 12 grapes before the last stroke of midnight (one for each chime), dates back to 1909, when grape growers in the Alicante region initiated the practice to take care of their grape surplus. Each grape represents a month of the year, so if the third grape is a bit sour, March might be rocky. The idea has spread to Portugal as well as former Spanish and Portuguese colonies such as Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru — where the Peruvians insist on consuming a thirteenth grape for good measure.
Various cakes and sweets are served worldwide to ring in the new year. Italy’s is called chiacchiere, which is made by frying honey-drenched balls of pasta dough and dusting powdered sugar on top. The Netherlands has oliebollen, literally oil balls, which are fried pastries filled with apples, raisins, or currants. Germanic tribes believed the goddess Perchta would fly through the air and slash the bellies of anyone she encountered, but to those with oliebollen in their stomachs, her sword would slide off their bodies. In Greece, a cake called vasilopita is baked with a coin hidden inside. On New Year’s Day, when the cake is cut, the first piece is reserved for St. Basil, and the rest is served to guests by order of descending age. Sweden and Norway have similar rituals with an almond hidden in rice pudding. Discovering the almond guarantees the finder good fortune for the new year.
Kim Kohatsu judges the quality of her relationships on the ability to share food. If she can't split an appetizer with you, in her eyes, you are pretty much worthless. Kim's current food adventures revolve around ramen, sushi, Indian curries, Sichuan food, and fried chicken. Oh, and cheeseburgers. Kim loves a good cheeseburger.