The Food Timeline–American Happy New Year Food Traditions
In most cultures, foods prepared on New Year’s Day bring good luck. Which foods? Depends upon the culture. Recurring themes are green (life), gold & coins (money/wealth) and pork/ham (because pigs root forward as they eat, embracing challenges).
“As New Year’s Day approaches, people around the world will plan for the coming year, eager to get off to the best possible start! Many people will “eat for luck”-they plan to eat special foods that, by tradition, are supposed to bring them good luck. Throughout history, people have eaten certain foods on New Year’s Day, hoping to gain riches, love, or other kinds of good fortune during the rest of the year. For people of several nationalities, ham or pork is the luckiest thing to eat on New Year’s Day. How did the pig become associated with the idea of good luck? In Europe hundreds of years ago, wild boars were caught in the forests and killed on the first day of the year. Also, a pig uses its snout to dig in the ground in a forward direction. Maybe people liked the idea of moving forward as the new year began, especially since pigs are also associated with plumpness and getting plenty to eat. However the custom arose, Austrians, Swedes, and Germans frequently choose pork or ham for their New Year’s meal. They brought this tradition with them when they settled in different regions of the United States. New Englanders often combine their pork with sauerkraut to guarantee luck and prosperity for the coming year. Germans and Swedes may pick cabbage as a lucky side dish, too. In other places, turkey is the meat of choice. Bolivians and some people in New Orleans follow this custom. But other people claim that eating fowl (such as turkey, goose, or chicken) on New Year’s Day will result in bad luck. The reason? Fowl scratch backward as they search for their food, and who wants to have to “scratch for a living”? Frequently, fish is the lucky food. People in the northwestern part of the United States may eat salmon to get lucky. Some Germans and Poles choose 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…In some places, a special cake is made with a coin baked inside. 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 (vasilopeta) 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, butter, salt, 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 prepared 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. Finally, Portugal and Spain have an interesting custom. As the clock strikes midnight and the new year begins, people in these countries may follow the custom of eating twelve grapes or raisins to bring them luck for all twelve months of the coming year!”
—“Eat for Luck!,” Victoria Sherrow & David Helton, Children’s Digest, Jan/Feb 94 (p. 20)
“Whether New Year’s day is celebrated on Jan. 1 according to the Gregorian calendar, in September or October as the Jews’ Rosh Hashanah or in midwinter by Asians, foods serve as edible talismans to assure luck, happiness or prosperity in the coming year. The notion, for example, that eating gold-colored food will put money in your pocket is common in Peru, where papas a la huanchaina, a potato dish tinted with tumeric or with a saffron-colored spiced called tadillo, is served on New Year’s Eve. In China, dumplings made from golden egg pancakes, crisply gilded spring rolls and oranges are the aureat foods appropriate for the Chinese New Year’s celebration…The Chinese also value fish. A whole one is preferred, suggesting that prosperity has favored you wtih more than you can eat. Pork is on the New Year’s table in many cultures, connoting riches because at one time having a pig to slaughter guaranteed food for the coming year. In Italy and in southern parts of the United States, pork is eaten in the form of sausage, stuffed pig’s trotters (zampone), ham hocks or pig’s knuckles, invariably accompanied by a dish of dried beans. The Italians eat lentils, or lenticchie, which since Roman times have represented coins… parsley decorates the dish because it was thought to ward off evil spirits. In the American South, greens are added to black-eyed peas or hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas with rice). The symbolism is straightforward: the greens represented dollars and the black-eyed peas coins. Dried beans, garnished or plain, represent the changing over of years, for they can be stored throughout the winter and then be planted to create the harvest. Sometimes a silver coin or trinket is buried in a dish of black-eyed peas or hoppin’ John, providing an extra measure of good luck to the person finding it…In Spain…12 grapes are eaten just before midnight, one for each chime of the clock. Good luck will come to those who finish the grapes before the final stroke.”
—“Culinary Talismans for a Lucky 1987,” Florence Fabricant, New York Times, December 31, 1986 (p. C3)
[NOTE: Coins and other trinkets baked in cakes are also common elements at Christmas and Twelfth Night.]
New Year’s food in the United States: a multicultural celebration
“New Year’s Celebrations. Although champage has become de rigeur as midnight strikes, no single food epitomizes the contemporary New Year’s holiday. The menu may be luxurious caviar at a New Year’s Eve bacchanalia or a sobering hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day. Celebrations marking the inexorable march of Father Time often involve foods imbued with symbolism, such as in the Pennsylvania Dutch New Year’s tradition of sauerkraut (for wealth) and pork–the pig roots forward into the future, unlike the Christmas turkey, which buries the past by scratching backward in the dirt. Seventeeth-century Dutch immigrants in the Hudson River valley welcomed the New Year by “opening the house” to family and friends. The custom was adapted by English colonists, who used brief, strictly choreographed January 1 social calls for gentlemen to renew bonds or repair frayed relationships. Ladies remained at home, offering elegantly arrayed collations laden with cherry bounce, wine, hot punch, and cakes and cookies, often flavored with the Dutch signatures of caraway, coriander, cardamom, and honey. Embossed New Year’s ‘cakes,” from the Dutch nieuwjaarskoeken–made by pressing a cookie-like dough into carved wooden boards decorated with flora and fauna–were a New York specialty throughout the nineteenth century…The New York custom of open house spread westward in the nineteeth century…In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries those of French and English backgrounds celebrated the twelve days of Christmas with gifts of food and festive dinners on January 1…African Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made one of the most enduring contributions to the modern holiday. Starting in the Carolinas but extending throughout the South, hoppin’ John and greens became traditional New Year’s fare, black-eyed peas bringing luck and the rice (which swelled in the cooking) and greens (like money) bringing prosperity. In the early twentieth century Japanese Americans adopted the open house tradition, serving glutinous rice dishes, soups, boiled lobsters (signifying health and happiness), and fish specially prepared to appear live and swimming.”
Pork & Sauerkraut
This is a German custom. Pennsylania Dutch, of German descent, also serve these foods.
“Throughout history, the lowly cabbage has played side dish to the pig on New Year’s Day, not because it bears a special significance, but because it’s a tasty complement to pork. “It’s a traditional combination,” said William Weaver, an internationally known food historian who lives in Chester County. Any Pennsylvania German worth his or her salt knows pork is served on New Year’s Day because it brings good luck. With their snouts, pigs root forward, signifying progress, lore dictates, whereas chickens and turkeys scratch backward.”
—“Eat ‘sour cabbage’ for a sweet year; Having sauerkraut on New Year’s Day brings luck, some say,” Kathleen Parrish, Morning Call [Allentown:PA], January 1, 2004 (p. A1)
“In the nineteenth century, sauerkraut was a cold-weather food. Sauerkraut with fresh pork was a fall dish. Sauerkraut with turkey was a Christmas dish. And sauerkraut with pork was eaten for good luck on New Year’s Day, because, as the [Pennsylvania] Dutch say, “the pig roots forward.” Thus rooting forward into the new year, the Dutch ate sauerkraut with salt pork in the late winter, and finally, sauerkraut with fish in early spring.”
—Sauerkraut Yankees, William Woys Weaver [University of Pennsylvania Press:Philadelphia] 1983 (p. 176)
New Year’s cookies & cakes
We can thank our colonial era Dutch settlers for introducing New Years cookies to America. Sometimes called New Years Cakes, these thin crisp sugar cookies were traditionally flavored with caraway, lemon and sometimes cider. Some recipes specify cutting the dough into fancy shapes, similar to Christmas cookies. Recipes for New Years cookies proliferate in the 1840s-1850s. By the late 1880s, they fade from the pages of “modern” culinary literature.
“New Years Cakes were considered a delicacy most peculiar to New York and the Hudson Valley, but we do find professional bakers in many other East Coast cities advertising these cakes. A baker in Philadelphia advertised in 1840 that he “sells the real New York New Year’s Cakes, the genuine Knickerbockers, of all sizes, from a cartwheel to a levenpenny bit…But how is it that New Years Cakes are also called Knickerbockers? We have already seen this term in connection with the olie-koecken…Yes, early Americans were sometimes confused about names, but at least this does tell us that people in the 1840s were well aware of the Dutch origins of this recipe.”
—The Christmas Cook: Three Centuries of American Yuletide Sweets, William Woys Weaver [Harper Perennial:New York] 1990 (p. 140)
[NOTE: This book contains a modernized recipe based on one published by Eliza Leslie, circa 1838.]
“New Year’s Cake. This name is somewhat misleading. The ingredients, as [Eliza] Lea ordered them, make a stiff cookie that was once popular in Pennsylvania and Delaware under the name of apes cake. It is closely related tot he springerle but was sold by street vendors the year-round. For rural Quakers, it was a special treat for children at New Year’s, which may explain the name Lea used for it. The cookie is not related to the crumb cake that is now sold under the name of apes in Berks County, Pennsylvania. More likely it was related to the New Year’s cookies that were associated with the Dutch settlers in Colonial New York. Those cookies were often stamped with elaborately carved mols. The leavening agent in them as potash or pearl ash.”
—A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook: The Domestic Cookery of Elizabeth Ellicott Lea, William Woys Weaver [Stackpole Books: Mechanicsburg PA] revised edition 2004 (p. 339)
“New Year’s Cookies. Christmas and New Year’s have always called for special recipes, and the Dutch New Year’s cookies, traditionally baked in moulds that produced the design of an eagle or the name of a famous person like Washington, were once among the most ornate. In 1808, Washington Irving’s Salmagundi: Or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others claimed: “These notable cakes, hight [called] new-year cookies…originally were impressed one side with the burly countenance of the illustrious Rip [Van Winkle].”
American Heritage Cookbook, Helen McCully recipes editor [American Heritage Publishing: New York] 1964 (p. 608)