Traditions & Superstitions

My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2015

When you think about it, celebrating New Year’s Eve is pretty simple.

Dress up, watch the clock, count down from ten and cheer. Dance a little, drink a little too much champagne, take a cab home, and if you’re lucky, sleep until about noon. Sure, it’s a multi-step process, but they’re steps that most folks have memorized by now.

New Year’s Day is another matter. In the cold light of day, last night’s high-energy party is moving a good deal slower, and everyone is trying to contend with the Four Horsemen of the Morning After: finding aspirin, making coffee, remembering resolutions, and (of course) eating good luck foods.

In most modern households, the edible traditions of New Year’s tend to get the short end of the celebratory stick. After a night of toasting and after-midnight festivities, most people just aren’t in the mood to cook, even if it means better luck for whole year.

Most adults grew up eating a little bit of the traditional New Year’s dishes — black eyed peas for luck, greens for money, cornbread for gold — as a kind of savory insurance policy. Even if we didn’t believe that a few nibbles make a difference on our next algebra grade or the Saint’s playoff chances, it just didn’t make sense to tempt fate.

So as a public service to my friends and neighbors, I’ve started my own New Year’s Day tradition — throwing an afternoon open house starring big batches of the Good Luck Foods. As gatherings go, it’s as casual as it gets: two pots on the stove, an electric cooker full of rice, disposable paper bowls and noon-to-six open-door policy.

As my own kitchen crew, I like starting my year off in front of a stove: stirring, smelling and basking in the heat of the burners. As the coffee maker burbles in the background, I chop onions, dice smoky andouille and crush plum tomatoes with my fingers. As most of said friends and neighbors sleep late, I’m clanking away, reminding myself that one resolution stays same regardless of the year — “Cook More.”

By early afternoon, the guests start arriving in various states of disrepair — usually bearing gifts of orange juice and champagne that miraculously survived the night before. Over mimosas and a lucky lunch, the various guests swap tales of the “lampshade incidents” around town, overindulgence and well-intentioned resolutions that didn’t live to see daybreak.

By sunset, the last stragglers arrive, hoping they haven’t missed out on their annual lucky meal. If there’s any left by nightfall, here’s what they can expect, menu-wise:

Black Eyed Peas for Luck

This is the one dish that you shouldn’t skimp on time-wise. If you cook your beans from scratch (and you should), it takes a solid two hours to get these from pre-soaked to tooth-tender. In terms of flavor, black-eyed peas can pack an earthy wallop. (An old roommate always said his grandmother’s peas “tasted like dirt, God rest her soul.”) Compensate with plenty of pork (andouille or ham work wonders), but if you’re still not sold, hit your bowl with your favorite pepper sauce or a few squirts of vinegar from a bottle of “sport peppers.”

Greens for Money

Many of my friends were raised in collard green families, but my mother always cooked cabbage on New Year’s. Never a fan of the boiled stuff, I bent the rules and went with a good coleslaw — the better to keep my apartment from stinking until Easter.
During my first cold winter in New Orleans, I decided to go the smothered route and put this recipe together with the bounty of my fridge. As luck would have it, crisp-fried andouille and caramelized onions go well with garlicky olive salad and tomatoes. By the time the cabbage is smothered down, the flavors are mixed and at their peak.

Cornbread for Gold

This is a tradition that I picked up from some Texas friends, partially because I like any excuse to cook my grandfather’s cornbread recipe. More grainy than cakelike, Leon’s cornbread is more high maintenance than pre-mixed varieties, but the heat-and-mix technique gives the cornbread a dark, crunchy crust that “baked in a pan” versions can’t match. Luckily, I keep three big cast iron skillets on hand for just such an occasion.

Milk Punch for Relief

This big-batch brunch cocktail is classic New Orleans “eye opener” and a sweet, calming way for guests to sip their “hair of the dog” should they be — how to put this? — a little “sensitive to light” from the evening’s festivities. You can make this one ahead of time and thaw to slushy perfection as the guests arrive.