Laura Dean Bennett
Well, the thrill of Christmas is over and I’ve probably put on five more pounds, but there’s still one more compelling excuse for overeating.
Let us decide what foods to include in the last debauchery of this holiday season by considering which foods are thought to be the luckiest.
You may have heard the expression, “Rooting ahead into the new year.”
Pork is a celebratory dish in all pig-loving cultures around the world.
Pigs “root ahead” as they eat, as opposed to the backwards scratching of chickens and turkeys, so they are considered a symbol of progress and good fortune.
A lot of people wouldn’t think of starting the new year without eating pork – I guess maybe also because pork is from pigs, which are known for their “rich” layers of fat.
Also, maybe, because we have left-over hams from Christmas – at least what we didn’t already grind up for ham salad.
Of course, we could probably eat ham salad sandwiches for New Year’s eve and kill two birds with one ham, so to speak.
My mom would usually cook up a home-butchered pork roast, a mess of sauerkraut, and a pot of black-eyed peas.
As a child, I wanted none of that. Okay, I liked the pork roast, but the sauerkraut and black-eyed peas were of no interest.
My taste buds have matured since then, and now I love sauerkraut – one out of two isn’t bad.
Besides kind of falling into the round category, there’s possibly another reason why black-eyed peas have historically been considered lucky, especially by folks in the South.
After the Civil War, starving Union soldiers ate up Southern crops, but they left behind the black-eyed peas, which they considered to be livestock feed.
Of course, Southerners knew that the hearty legumes are full of protein and had been eating them for years.
Black-eyed peas had been providing much-needed sustenance during the war and continued to do so during the period of reconstruction when the possibility of starving to death had to be very real for many families.
That alone must have cemented their reputation as being very lucky, indeed.
“Peas for pennies, greens for dollars and cornbread for gold,” goes an old Southern saying.
It’s worthy of note that all three of these foods were staples on the tables of women trying to feed their families in the hard years following the war.
Cabbage, and hence, sauerkraut, is green like money– automatically making them suitable for a New Year’s meal.
Another reason for eating sauerkraut at New Year’s may have to do with timing of cabbage harvesting, and the shredding and pickling of pounds and pounds of it to preserve as sauerkraut.
If you’ve ever prepared, or brined your own sauerkraut, like my dad did, you know it takes six to eight weeks to ferment. So, if your cabbage is harvested at the end of October, the kraut is just about perfect for eating at the end of the year.
And the healthy, tart kraut makes the perfect side dish for rich, salty pork.
Lots of people like to include green stuff like collards, kale, peas, broccoli and Brussels sprouts in their New Year’s menus.
Some of these greens are also round, like coins.
That makes them twice as lucky, I guess, because they are perennial favorites on the table for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Collards, turnip greens and mustard greens are all common greens for a New Year’s meal in New England and the South, although cabbage is probably the most popular of all green vegetables in every region.
These vegetables are plentiful and easy to grow, the leaves being flat, like paper currency, and thus favored for the possibility of being able to attract paper money to the family pocketbook in the new year.
Lentils and black-eyed peas also evoke roundness, so that’s probably why many families wouldn’t think of risking starting a new year without eating them.
To this day, all over Italy, and in the homes of families of Italian descent here in America, people welcome in the New Year with lentil dishes, often pairing lentils with sausage, maybe because sausage slices also look like coins.
The eating of pickled herring for good luck at New Year’s is not common to just one region of the U.S.
Any area with a large Scandinavian population, such as the Norwegian and Swedish communities in Minnesota, will indulge in huge herring extravaganzas this December 31st, when Scandinavian tradition dictates eating the little fish right at the stroke of midnight.
Families of German descent are also partial to eating pickled herring.
The custom might have come from the fact that the shiny scales of herring give off the flash of money – a matter of absolutely no import to me, as, to my way of thinking, the odor of herring gives off an air of “I wouldn’t eat that if I was starving to death!”
Of course, my taste buds may change their minds one day, like I said, they’ve been known to do that.
To sum it all up, although I’ve been adhering to many theories regarding the “lucky New Year’s meal” for many years, I can’t say as how these foods have brought an extraordinary amount of luck to me.
However, seeing as how I am still alive, and as anyone who knows me can attest – am extremely well-fed – and have a secure roof over my head and a warm, safe place to sleep.
Maybe I’m a lot luckier than I thought!
So, from my table to yours, I’m wishing you and yours a happy and healthy New Year, no matter what you choose to eat.