New Year's Traditions

My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2017

I’ve got something to say to you, 2017: Buh-bye. Please don’t come again. And if you’re in contact with any upcoming years — particularly the next one — and these years happen to resemble you, would you mind taking them with you? And going far, far away?

I’m not going to reiterate all the reasons why you, 2017 — I’m going to be blunt here, and use the technical term — sucked.

And I’m just going to say to you, 2018: Please be more civil, kind, thoughtful, generous and more evenhanded with all of us. We’re tired. We need some seriously good mojo. Please bring us more luck — I’m talking the good kind, brought to more people. We need more for and less against. Please, 2018 — is that too much to ask?

Me, I’m going to do my tiny part to make that happen. And among my intended behaviors of civility, kindness, et al., will be this: to cook well, deliciously and healthfully, and to serve others what I cook. And I’d like to do this with a generous and joyful heart; because, call me crazy, but I think a heart that is more like that than like a piece of beef jerky makes me and everyone I come in contact with a little happier, and thus spreads the sense of luckiness at least a little farther.

Now, once a year, every year, we have the opportunity to do this in a unique and explicit manner: by serving and eating dishes reputed to bring good luck on New Year’s Day. Fortunately — since, by the time New Year’s Day rolls around, everybody is partied out and completely over the crabmeat puffs and similar rich fancy party food, eaten standing up — most of these traditional good luck foods are simple: uncomplicated, unfussy, as easy to serve as to eat. And as good to eat as they are reputed to be lucky.

Every culture has its New Year — a moveable feast, if that culture’s calendar is lunar, as are those of most Asian countries. And most New Yearses, no matter when they fall, are loaded with expectations of, if not dramatic self-improvement (that seems to be primarily an American custom, vigorous self-reinventors that we are), then with the idea of using the day to predict or seek luck and good fortune. Of wishing it for others, and ourselves. Of going after it, often in some way propitiating fate, the gods or one’s ancestors. Of courting it, by wearing particular colors, taking particular actions and, yes, eating particular foods.

Since I’m always fascinated by food as a window into human hopes, fears, aspirations and customs, I have offhandedly been exploring for years the traditional New Year’s dishes alleged to bring luck. If you take a closer look at those dishes, you can also get a good idea of what human beings equate luck with. (Money is a major contender, but by no means the only one. Health and longevity, and general sweetness, also figure).

Yes, I know you almost certainly know about black-eyed peas, frequently cooked with ham hocks as in Hoppin’ John. But so many of the world’s cultures have cooperated in providing us with such dishes, made with established (though, okay, not proven) lucky ingredients for the various New Year’s celebrated around the globe, it would be a pity not to look a little more deeply at the “what” and “why” of fortunate foods.

Beans and lentils: From Ancient Rome’s lentils to the American South’s black-eyed peas, legumes have spelled luck in many times and places. Some cultures hold that each bean represents a coin, bringing wealth. Others see the bean as a seed (which, of course, it is), reminding the eater of new life and new beginnings.

Greens: Leafy cooking greens — collards, kale, turnip, spinach, cabbage — are also associated with wealth — in this case, folding paper money. Although cultures other than the American one make this symbolic link, it’s particularly strong in the U.S. where, of course, our folding money is green.

Golden foods: Go to a Chinese New Year celebration and you’ll see pyramidal stacks of oranges and pommelos (large, round yellow citrus fruits, which look like large grapefruits). Gold — need we say again? — symbolizes wealth. In some parts of America, the gold theme is carried out in one of our native breads: cornbread (bake it in a skillet and you get double-lucky, because it becomes a round food — more on that later).

Long noodles: This one is Chinese and only Chinese. The long noodle promises long life. The thing is, you need to slurp it, unbroken, into your mouth. Cutting it could be dangerous to your longevity.

Pork and fat: Think “high on the hog” and “fat of the land” and you’ll get the connection. Often, in the American South, the pork is a ham hock or hambone, thrown in to simmer with the beans, greens or both. Vegetarians and non-pork-eating populations spin off with other fat foods: butter or ghee, olive oil, coconut fat or fried foods in general.

Sweet foods: At the Jewish New Year, honeyed foods ensure a sweet year. Usually, there’s honey cake and/or apple slices dipped in honey. In Spain, eating one grape per chime of the clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve guarantees the same sweetness. In parts of Italy, a round, almond-filled, snake-shaped cake is eaten, promising a sweet year, and one in which the less desirable parts of the past may be sloughed off as the snake sheds its skin (this pastry might be particularly appropriate at the changing of the guard between 2017 and 2018).

Round foods: Beans, the citruses, cornbread baked in a skillet and many of the traditionally lucky sweets are round. Which brings us to what may be the most powerful symbol of all: Like the circular wedding ring, roundness speaks of eternity, of the cycle of life, and how what goes around comes around.
I always prepare dishes with ingredients in most of these categories at New Year’s. But, because I’m a traditionalist only up to a point, more often I’ve just riffed off of them, coming up with my own iterations, to my own taste. Take my Spicy-Smoky East-West Black-Eyed Peas: these black-eyes, untraditionally, don’t have ham or bacon in them. So what makes them smoky? A mixture of chipotle peppers and toasted sesame oil. Miso, a fermented soybean paste, is available at Rouses Markets; it and the sesame add the “East” to these delectable beans, and like so many fermented foods, a nice savory wallop. Improbable though this combination may sound, your guests will swoon over it.

Then there’s my Brazilian Style Collard Green Salad. Raw collard greens? A few brief years ago, the idea of eating raw collard greens would have hardly been comprehensible to most Americans, especially Southerners. But times have changed with the advent of kale salads. Many find the texture of kale objectionable — its curliness, if it is not cut finely enough, can cause it to get caught in the throat — but this is not a problem with the flat-leaved, milder collard greens, especially given the method of slicing in this recipe: very thin slices, almost threadlike. One bite of these sprightly green ribbons and their couldn’t-be-simpler dressing, and you’ll be a convert. Another plus: Unlike a salad of more tender greens, such as mesclun, this dish is happy to wait, just as good an hour or two after being made as it is immediately. It’s positively wilt-proof!

Make sure your slicing knife is good and sharp, though; the only trick, as mentioned, is slicing the greens very, very thinly. You can do this slicing the day before. Just pack the ribboned greens into zip-top plastic bags and refrigerate until a couple of hours before serving.