If you’re looking forward to winning the lottery, getting a raise or meeting the love of your life, it’s not wise to tempt the fates by omitting legumes, cabbage or the head of a pig from your New Year’s menu.
Eating certain foods now will ensure a charmed year ahead, or so go entrenched superstitions all over the world. Strenuous contortions in logic manage to transform humble foods such as lentils into symbols of wealth and luck. Bear in mind that most dishes associated with good fortune are from the beliefs and impoverished diets of the peasant class of centuries ago.
Other New Year celebrations occur throughout the modern calendar: Chinese New Year and Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, come later in winter; Nouruz, the Arabic New Year, is held on the vernal equinox, and Jewish New Year arrives around fall. But Jan. 1 is the New Year of the world’s clock. This is when we tend to become a bit like Janus, the Roman god for whom January is named. He has two faces on either side of his head – one looks back, the other forward.
Pig (jowels, head, neck, hocks, etc.) augurs well this time of year – from roast suckling pig in Hungary, to pig’s feet galantine in Poland, to pork soup in Croatia. The chicken simply does not carry much metaphor here. They peck backwards, but when pigs root, they move decisively forward. Or so the theory goes.
Italians combine pork sausage with lentils for a dish that doubles the putative powers of lucky foods. This new year, Bruce Pierini, professor of anthropology at Sacramento City College, will be at an elaborate dinner in Rome.
“It doesn’t matter that we will have had five or six courses,” says Pierini, an avid member of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, which hosts Italian dinners throughout the Sacramento region.“At midnight, the waiter will proudly pour out the complimentary Prosecco or champagne and serve the lenticchie e cotechino. The tradition is that the more you eat of the lentils and sausage made from the fat, meat and skin of the pig’s head, the more prosperity in the coming year.”
Black-eyed peas from North Africa have held powers of destiny for more than a thousand years. Famed in the American South, they can be vegetarian or flavored with ham. Combined with rice and ham, you get South Carolina’s Hoppin’ John. Or, if you prefer, cook up a pot of red beans. Same thinking.
In the greens category, cabbage is a mainstay in Irish, German and Eastern European households, but on New Year’s, it brings double benefit. First, it’s considered one of the greens that can bring in the greenbacks. Second, cabbage in any form, even sauerkraut, has been known since antiquity to deflect the effects of hangovers. Drink, eat cabbage, wake up normal and consider it luck.
Scandinavian, Dutch, and Baltic cuisines look to the herring. Wars were fought over this silvery fish, and also the salt that cured them. One year’s herring harvest could be huge, the next year, almost nothing. This gave herring the status of divine messenger and makes it a must on New Year tables.
In Spanish-speaking countries, the tradition is to eat 12 grapes – one for each stroke of the clock at midnight. “That’s not as easy as it sounds,” says Kristina Becerra, a former Sacramento restaurant professional who lived in Spain in the mid-’90s. “You can’t keep up with the clock. You chew and chew and swallow, and by the next stroke you have to start again. You end up left with at least six or seven grapes.”
In Peru it’s 13 grapes, 12 for the chimes and one more for luck.
While Japanese are steaming and pounding mochi rice cakes to ensure a good harvest, Filipinos are using sweet rice flour, coconut milk and sugar for baked custard cakes called bibingka. “Filipinos are in favor of desserts made of sticky rice,” says Sacramento graphic artist Jean Wiley, a first-generation Filipina, “since it helps make good fortune stick to you and your family.”
Greeks don’t waste time using food to symbolize money. They push an actual coin into the dough of New Year’s bread, called vasilopita. After baking, the first piece cut is for Christ, the second for the household father and the last for the house.
Says Peter Cononelos of Sacramento’s Mani Imports: “I never get the coin.”
If the coin ends up in the very last piece of vasilopita, the forecast is that flowers will bloom sooner and the grass will be greener. One can hope.