Resolutions. Bah, humbug. Sometimes it seems that’s all anyone talks about in the days leading up to New Year’s. While we’re all for creating our own fortune, and much as we believe in the efficacy of a little good-old fashioned gumption, sometimes we just wanna revel in superstition. You know, let the stars, serendipity, and black-eyed peas do their thing. In case you feel the same, here’s a voyeuristic look at but a handful of the lucky, lovely, and quirky food traditions known to humankind. Feel free to divulge your own superstitions and traditions below in a comment. Just please, no resolutions.—Renee Schettler Rossi
I’m not a legume kind of girl. Never have been. When I was little, I’d beg my mother not to make them, bribe dinner guests to eat my portion, even toss them to my ankle-biting French poodle, Jacques, under the table. (In retrospect, I think Jacques was probably ill-tempered due to uncomfortable gas buildup.)
But there was one legume that was unavoidable—the black-eyed pea. My mom insisted on one pea every New Year’s Day for good luck. That darn little pea stared at me with its lone black eye every year, taunting me, double-dog daring me not to eat it under the veiled threat of a year of bad fortune. So I did what any child would do: I held my nose, gagged that sucker down, and waited for the good luck to begin.
I try to be a bit more grown-up about my food aversions these days, though the black-eyed pea continues to haunt me this time of year when I continue that loathsome tradition. Some years I’ve layered the peas with sausage, rice, and cheese in a casserole. Other times I’ve cooked them with bacon and spices. I’ve even whirred them in the food processor to make a dip. This year I may toss them with wilted spinach and lemon. Anything. Just no bad luck, please.
—Beth Price, LC director of recipe testing
Growing up in Singapore, my sister and I would spend many a Chinese New Year’s Eve watching with amusement as my father and mother began their annual ritual of ushering in an auspicious year. Every single light in the house would be turned on so the God of Fortune would be sure to see us as he made his annual sweep of the earth. Accompanying my parents’ prayers for a good year ahead was a small table, set up outside the front door, which groaned under the weight of tea, flowers, oranges, and other offerings to the gods. (Once when the Tiger year was about to roar in, my parents placed a large, raw steak outside the house in addition to their standard offerings, in the hopes of appeasing the beast that was about to take over.)
These Chinese New Year traditions were filled with color; every action undertaken, every morsel consumed, was imbued with significance. My mother always made sure to begin Chinese New Year by rounding up the family to share cups of red-date tea to sweeten the year ahead and bowls of noodles to guarantee longevity—usually along with reminders to not wash our hair or sweep the floor, or we’d be whisking our fresh batch of good luck away.
By comparison, our January 1 traditions tended, by comparison, to be more muted. I’d wake up to the smell of one of my mother’s delicious soups brewing on the stove instead of her sweet tea. She who believes fervently in the healing power of Chinese soups would routinely toss watercress, pork, dates, and apricot kernels in a large pot of water to simmer all morning, a concoction designed to give her daughters a lucky boost for the calendar year ahead.
That was then. When you leave the life you grew up in to carve out another life half a world away, you sometimes have to make up new traditions as you go. And so it is that on January 1, as I wake up in New York City, I often find myself thinking about my family and working the lucky foods my mother taught me about into my New Year’s Day diet. A bowl of noodles as a nod to the gods. A pot of my mother’s watercress soup as a general talisman. Singaporean pineapple tarts, eaten for good luck (pineapples are seen as symbols of prosperity), are hard to come by in New York, but cookies, in my mind, suffice for a blissful, sweet year ahead. I even consider having fish instead of red meat for dinner, since the Mandarin word for fish, “yu,” sounds similar to the word for “abundance.” It’s a hodge-podge of lucky traditions, transplanted to a different day of the year and a different continent altogether.
My mother might think it a little odd for me to be applying her age-old Chinese talismans for luck to a western holiday. But that’s the thing about being an immigrant—your new life isn’t going to look exactly like your old life. If you’re blessed, you end up creating one life that seamlessly blends the good moments from the two.
These foods may bring good fortune, or they may simply make me wistful, hoping my wishes will come true. But most of all, they serve to remind me of my rich past and present, and that I am, indeed, already quite lucky.
—Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of A Tiger in the Kitchen and editor of Singapore Noir, a fiction anthology to be published in 2014. She is a former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal and InStyle, and her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Food & Wine, and elsewhere. She blogs at www.atigerinthekitchen.com
I have a New Year’s ritual: I always spend it watching a movie. But there’s no set food or anything, other than a Scotch at midnight. Then again, since I have a Scotch virtually every night, I guess that doesn’t set NYE apart all that much.
—Jonathan Dixon, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who wrote about his experiences as a student chef in his first book, Beaten, Seared, and Sauced. He also wrote for Leite’s about his experiences trying to woo women.
Funny how New Year’s is a time for hope for the future—a future assured by resolutions oft made under the influence of alcohol or the subsequent hangover. Not surprisingly, such lofty or abstract intentions are generally abandoned by the third of January. Nonetheless, certain New Year’s Day traditions are strictly observed, at least in my house.
You see, many of my ancestors come from the South, a region rich in food traditions. Once, back in the ’60s, my Texan grandfather was puzzled by something he’d heard about. He asked my father, “What’s this stuff they’re callin’ ‘soul food’?” My father explained that it was cornbread, collards, fried chicken, barbecue, and so forth. Granddad cogitated for a bit, then responded, “Wha’ hay-ell… ah bin eatin’ soul food ahl ma lahfe!”
Anyways, the South is rich not just in traditions, but superstitions. Every January 1, southerners—my Granddad included—make sure to eat dishes believed to bring prosperity in the New Year. Hoppin’ John, a kind of pilaf of black-eyed peas and rice, symbolizes the change that would supposedly soon jingle in the pockets of those who ate it on New Year’s Day. An accompanying mess of cooked greens—collards, mustard, or, my favorite, turnip greens—signifies “foldin’ money.” The greens on our table have been slowly wilted in rendered salt-pork or bacon fat, and tend to be sprinkled with “pepper sauce,” the vinegar from a bottle of pickled hot peppers.
So far, this superstition’s efficacy has yet to been confirmed by the delivery of much superfluous cash to our household— but I’m not about to take any chances.
—Gary Allen, a food writer and food historian who would like to thank Karen Hess, author of The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection (University of South Carolina Press, 1992), for information used in the writing of this essay.
New Year’s Eve 1994. I was in my mid-twenties, ringing in the New Year with my parents and their peers at the home of our longtime family friend, Manya. I couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong with me that I didn’t have a boyfriend or, at the very least, a date to ring in the New Year with.
In Cyprus, Greece, where Manya and her husband, Erikkos, grew up, it’s tradition on New Year’s Eve to bake a sweet, golden, spiced braided bread called vasilopita (pronounced vah-si-LO-pi-ta). As she explained that night, a silver coin is hidden in the bread before it’s baked, then the loaf is cut at the stroke of midnight, as the lights are dimmed and then lit again to signify the end of one year and the beginning of a new one. As the story goes, simply eating this soft, yeasty bread is supposed to fill the eater with a sense of well-being for the coming year, but the lucky person who selects the slice with the coin in it is said to have an especially full year ahead.
Manya sliced as many pieces of her vasilopita as there were guests, slipped them onto a platter, and draped them with a cloth. Custom calls for the youngest at the table to select the first slice. Seeing as I was the youngest among the small gathering by a lot, Manya handed me the platter. I was inexplicably overcome with the knowing that my piece would contain the coin. I felt like Charlie in his search for Willy Wonka’s golden ticket as I drew my piece from under the cloth and held up the tender yellow slice. Sure enough, there was the coin. “YES!” I gasped aloud, disrupting the quiet ceremony of the cake-passing. Not only would that foil-wrapped dime ensure health for my family, which had proven elusive, I thought excitedly, but surely another year would not, could not, pass without Prince Charming arriving on my doorstep.
Throughout the months that followed, I kept that lucky coin on my kitchen windowsill, so I could be reminded daily that this was my year, filled with good fortune. As one illness after another struck my family, I wondered at the coin. When my dating trajectory seemed little influenced by the coin’s presence, I glanced at it disappointedly. And when I started to become obsessed with the coin in the same way that some look to horoscopes or palm-reading, I worried over my fascination with it. I even went to toss the coin in the trash several times, figuring it was really just superstition. But for some reason I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I told myself maybe it was the fragrance of the bread’s mahleb (ground cherry pits) lingering on the foil that kept me from throwing it away.
It wasn’t until the end of that year, during my annual questioning of my place in the universe, that I finally understood what Manya’s coin had brought me. It had brought me luck. Just not the sort that I’d expected. Instead of giving me ostentatious and obvious luck, it had given me a lesson in optimism. In hope. I had kept the coin around because I’d wanted to believe in good things to come. And in so doing, I’d discovered that being the type of person who expected good things to come is the best possible kind of luck I could have.
—Maureen Abood, who recently left her job of many years to attend cooking school, now cooks, writes, and photographs for her blog, Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, as well as for Saveur, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and Gastronomica.
When I was growing up, the tradition in my family was to have pork with sauerkraut on New Year’s day. By having this “delicious” entree on January 1st, we were promised good luck throughout the coming year. My mother wasn’t a gourmet cook, so the meal wasn’t what I’d call exciting. I remember it being a simple pork roast with salt and pepper as its only seasoning, cooked in a pool of sauerkraut. I don’t know where the tradition came from, or how it started for us, but every year of my young life I made it through this dreaded tradition. Needless to say, it is not a tradition that David and I continue today.
—The One (aka The One Who Brings David Love, Joy, and Happiness)
I don’t know about you, but my New Year’s Eves have morphed from sequins and clubs (not really…maybe the sequins part) to letting the kids stay up until midnight and attempting to do the same myself. And in our family, pigs in a blanket are synonymous with New Year’s Eve.
—Katie Workman, author of The Mom 100 Cookbook
Tell us, dear reader, what are your New Year’s superstitions and traditions?
Hungry for more? Chow down on these:
- Good Luck Pork and Sauerkraut from Good Food Stories
- New Year, New Food: Polish Tradition in South Jersey from Jersey Bites
- Food Souvenirs from Leite's Culinaria
- New Year’s Brunch: A Karmic Cup Runneth Over from Leite's Culinaria
Photo © 2012 CherryPoint. All rights reserved.