Throughout most of written history, we know that people have eaten certain foods on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, hoping for riches, love, or other good fortune. For people of some nationalities, ham or pork has long been considered the luckiest thing to eat on New Year’s Day. You might wonder how the pig became associated with the concept of good luck but in Europe during medieval times, wild boars were caught in the forests and killed on the first day of the year. Since pigs are associated with plumpness and getting plenty to eat, it might be one explanation for having pork on New Year’s Day.
Austrians, Swedes, and Germans frequently chose pork or ham for their New Year’s meal and brought this tradition with them when they came to America. Germans and Swedes often picked cabbage as a lucky side dish and in my parents’ home, pork and sauerkraut was served at midnight on New Years Eve, along with mashed potatoes and creamed peas. (It might not have been so lucky, going to bed after eating such a hearty meal as after midnight!)
Turkey is considered lucky in some countries; Bolivians and residents in New Orleans follow this custom. Fish is considered lucky food by people in the northwestern part of the United States who may eat salmon. Some Germans and Poles eat herring, which may be served in a cream sauce or pickled. Other Germans eat carp.
Sometimes sweets or pastries are eaten for luck. In the colony of New Amsterdam, now New York, the Dutch settlers still enjoy these treats. Germans often ate doughnuts while the French have traditionally celebrated with pancakes. In some places, a special cake is made with a coin baked inside. (Curiously, my German grandmother fried doughnuts with a coin inside each – on the Feast of the Three Kings, or the Epiphany, celebrated January 6th). Such cakes are traditional in Greece, which celebrates Saint Basil’s Day and New Year’s at the same time. The Saint Basil’s Day cake is made of yeast dough and flavored with lemon. The person who gets the slice with the silver or gold coin is considered very lucky!
Many of the luck-bringing foods are round or ring-shaped, because this signifies that the old year has been completed. Black-eyed peas are an example of this, and they are part of one of New Year’s most colorful dishes, Hoppin’ John, which is eaten in many southern states. Hoppin’ John is made with black-eyed peas or dried red peas, combined with hog jowls, bacon, or salt pork. Rice or other vegetables may be added. The children in the family might even hop around the table before the family sits down to eat this lucky dish. In Brazil, lentils are a symbol of prosperity, so lentil soup or lentils with rice is traditional for the first meal of the New Year.
Thousands of miles away, the Japanese observe their New Year’s tradition of eating a noodle called toshikoshi soba. (This means “sending out the old year.”) This buckwheat noodle is quite long, and those who can swallow at least one of them without chewing or breaking it are supposed to enjoy good luck and a long life. (Or maybe the luck might be not choking on the long noodle!)
In Portugal and Spain people have an interesting custom. When the clock strikes midnight, people in these countries eat twelve grapes or raisins to bring them luck for all twelve months of the coming year.
The ancient Romans gave gifts of nuts, dates, figs, and round cakes. Northern Italians began the new year eating lentils to symbolize coins. In the Piedmont region of Italy, the New Year’s Day meal of risotto signified wealth with its abundance of small grains. Another Italian custom is to eat sweets for a year of good luck. It can be as simple as a raisin or a more elaborate, almond-filled cake in the shape of a snake. As a snake sheds its old skin and leaves it behind, this cake symbolizes leaving the past behind as a new year begins.
In Spain, you are promised good luck in the new year if, at midnight, you eat one grape with each stroke of the clock.
Dumplings are a traditional New Year’s food in northern China. Because they look like nuggets of gold, they are thought to signal good fortune.
The Vietnamese celebrate their new year in late January and eat carp – a round-bodied fish thought to carry the god of good luck on its back.
Cambodians celebrate their new year in April by eating sticky rice cakes made with sweet beans.
In Iran, the New Year is celebrated in March, when grains of wheat and barley are sprouted in water to symbolize new life. Coins and colored eggs are placed on the table, which is set for a special meal of seven foods that begin with the letter “s”.
I posed this question – special foods to welcome in the New Year – to some friends. Lorraine wrote that at her mother’s they always had Menudo on New Years; she says her friend Geri always has Black Eyed Peas. My friend Patti who lives in Cincinnati wrote “Sauerkraut, Limburger cheese & Pickled Pigs Feet…I did not partake”.
Penpal Penny who lives in Oklahoma wrote “Here on New Year’s Day ……black-eyed peas and hog jowl……for good luck, greens…..for financial good luck then of course you have to have cornbread and fried potatoes. I always fix slaw though any kind of greens will do. You just want to make sure you eat PLENTY of both of the peas and greens!! Good ole poke salad ( or as the old timers would say…. poke salit ) would be wonderful with it….some years I’ve lucked out and found plenty in the spring and had a bag or two in the freezer.” And girlfriend Sylvia wrote, “We eat black eyed peas!! I think that is a southern thing…”
From my penpal Bev, who lives in Oregon, I received this email, “My family had no New Years Eve or day traditions…When I was 40 became acquainted with a shy, soft spoken…gal when I went to Chemeketa Community College. She was taking classes as background for writing. and had in her mind a book she wanted to write…To my surprise, she was a member of MENSA. That was probably the first time I had ever heard of that elite society. Anyway, she and her husband invited us to their home for New Years Day, and served some type of beans. Seems to me it was limas. Have you heard of that before? This couple had lived in Japan but I can’t imagine beans being a good luck dish from that part of the world…” (In a subsequent email Bev decided it might have been black-eyed peas they were served).
Marge wrote “My grandmother was a first generation American born of German immigrants in Nebraska. While that was not our usual New Year’s fare, we ate sauerkraut often especially in the winter time, and she used pork tails in hers often and often pork ribs while she cooked the kraut. I rarely make sauerkraut though Dorman likes it. I know some people make (sauerkraut) with bratwurst sausage…”
Chris wrote “As far as New Year’s Eve, I remember my grandpa always bringing home herring. It came in a squat jar in kind of a vinegar sauce. I don’t buy it anymore but it’s pretty popular in the grocery stores around here during the holidays.”
Rosie wrote “I never had anything special for New Year’s Eve or Day but Bernie always used to eat pickled herring on New Year’s Day before we were married. It meant a prosperous year or something. He’s German and Belgium so I’m assuming it’s one of those traditions”
And in my household, we returned to the custom of pork and sauerkraut, reflecting the German heritage of both Bob and myself.
This New Year’s Eve (2012), my penpal Bev and her husband Leroy will be here for dinner and we are going to have sauerkraut (homemade!) and sausages. I cooked two corned beef briskets yesterday in my pressure cooker so we can have Reuben sandwiches the next day. When I was visiting them in Oregon in October, they took me to a wonderful German restaurant in Portland and we enjoyed Reuben sandwiches. I may have lost a little of my connection with German and Hungarian cuisine and maybe this New Year’s dinner will be an opportunity to re-connect. I would love to share more of my German Hungarian roots with you!
May 2015 bring us all good luck and happiness. Thank you for being such loyal subscribers to the Sandychatter blog. As I re-wrote and posted this article about food traditions in many countries, I spent mostly a quiet New Year’s Eve (the fireworks going off scared both of my dogs who huddled close to me). Earlier my sister and her husband, along with sons Cody and Joe (and Joe’s wife and two children, a little boy and a little girl) paid me a visit. Joe’s son, Joe Jr., helped me unwrap gifts from all of them. I am delighted to report that son Joe is moving back to California–Joe is a computer expert and I will have someone to call when I have computer issues. Joe lived with Bob & me for a few months when we were still on Arleta & I feel a kinship with him. Happy New Year to everyone, 2015.