So many fun and wonderful traditions are observed around the family table during this magical holiday season, beginning with Thanksgiving turkey and continuing right through Christmas eggnog, but don’t forget the equally important culinary traditions of the new year. Cultures from around the world observe a variety of practices thought to bring the new year in properly.
Jan. 1 offers an opportunity to forget the past and make a clean start. Food is considered the centerpiece of many New Year’s traditions meant to ensure that the next year will be a great one. Just a few of the tasty major categories considered fortunate are grapes, greens, fish, pork, legumes and cakes. Whether you want to create a full menu of lucky foods or just supplement your meal, an assortment of choices abound, guaranteed to make for a happy new year, or at least a very happy belly.
Cooked greens, including cabbage, collards, turnip, kale and chard, are consumed at New Year’s in various countries for a simple reason — their green leaves look like folded money and are symbolic of economic fortune. In the South, collards or turnip greens are the green of choice. It’s widely believed that the more greens one eats, the larger one’s fortune will be in the coming year.
Peas and beans
Legumes, including beans, peas and lentils, are also symbolic of money. Their small seedlike appearance resembles coins that swell when cooked, so they are consumed with financial rewards in mind.
Self-respecting Southerners would never risk their luck by skipping black-eyed peas on New Year’s. Sometimes black-eyed peas are made into a dish called Hoppin’ John. A quick Internet search confirms that this practice can be traced back to the widely held legend that during the Civil War, the town of Vicksburg, Miss., ran out of food while under attack. While the North had ransacked the food reserves, the plain dried peas were left behind because the Yankee armies thought the peas were just feed for cattle. The residents of Vicksburg fortunately discovered the lasting legumes and fed the hungry, allowing them to survive the cold, bleak winter. Thereafter, black-eyed peas have been thought to be lucky. Often, this tasty treat is made along with one or more of the following:
The custom of eating pork on New Year’s is based on the idea that pigs symbolize progress. The animal pushes forward, rooting itself in the ground before moving, reminding us of always moving forward in the new year. Pork is consumed because, thanks to its rich fat content, it signifies wealth and prosperity.
Wikipedia confirms that the tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight, one on each strike of the clock, began in Spain. Each sweet grape symbolizes a sweet month in the new year.
But don’t eat …
Chicken is discouraged because the bird scratches backward, so those who eat it will “scratch” for their food all year. Another theory warns against eating any winged fowl because good luck could fly away. The same goes for lobster — it moves backward and can cause a “setback.”
And don’t forget!
Fill your pantry before midnight — this practice is meant to start the new year with abundance.
“Hoppin’ John” is a very casual recipe open to many variations. Primarily, the peas should be softened overnight and slowly cooked with salt pork, hog jowl, ham hock or bacon for seasoning and richness. If a rowdy New Year’s party keeps you from the overnight step, you can always “quick soak” by bringing the dried peas and water to a boil for 10 minutes, remove from heat and soak for an hour, drain, change the water, and cook on medium heat until soft.
The Hoppin’ John recipe below is spicy and rich from the pork fat. Sometimes a quick squeeze of fresh lemon may be needed to cut the rich fat. Serve with piping hot rice and a nice slab of golden cornbread (sunshine). Happy new year!
Simple Hoppin’ John
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 can Rotel tomatoes
2 cups black-eye peas, cooked with ham hock
2 cups cooked rice, hot
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Soften onion in butter for about 5 minutes. Add peas, tomatoes and garlic powder, to taste. Cook an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve over hot rice.
Cash Flow Collard or Turnip Greens
6 tablespoons butter (3/4 stick)
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1/2 pound smoked meat: ham hock, salt pork or smoked ham
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 (1-pound) bag pre-washed collard or turnip greens, or 1 large bunch collard or turnip greens, well washed with ribs removed
1 tablespoon bacon grease
In a 3-quart saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add 2 1/2 cups water and the smoked meat and seasonings. Bring to a boil; then reduce the heat, cover, and cook the meat for 30 minutes.
Add the greens. They will fill the pot, but they will cook down very quickly. Bring to a boil; then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook the greens until they are tender, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on how tender your greens are and how soft you like them.
Add the bacon grease, if using, and the remaining butter. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.