Traditions abound at this time of year. It’s no surprise that some of the more memorable and long-standing customs revolve around food and the symbolism each dish represents.
For as long as I can remember, starting with my mother, who was always working hard in the kitchen, juggling duties like the pro she was, we had specific dishes served on New Year’s Day that symbolized good fortune in the coming year.
January 1st meant a hearty meal of pork, sauerkraut, herring and lentils. Since I’m first-generation Italian, invariable a pasta dish would be in the mix as well.
So, what’s the significance of those choices?
I did some digging and found some interesting food for thought. As to pork, years ago in Europe, wild boars were killed on the first day of the year. And since a pig uses its snout to dig in the ground in a forward direction, the idea of moving ahead as the New Year began, appealed to people who want a fresh start.
Many of us combine pork with sauerkraut to guarantee luck and prosperity for the coming year. Munching on 'sour cabbage' is supposed to foretell a sweet year and good luck, according to cultural folklore.
Lentils are a staple on our New Year’s Day menu as well. There is a rich tradition associated with the legumes. The Italians eat lentils, which represent 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. 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, since 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 the treasure. The same holds true in cakes that are shaped in a circle. As the year comes round, a lucky ring buried in the sweet treat symbolizes good luck for the person who discovers it.
Another food-related custom isn’t as fat-laden: In Spain, the tradition focuses on eating 12 grapes at midnight to ensure a fruitful year ahead. Each grape corresponds with a single month in the upcoming year: a sour second grape, for example, might foretell a bumpy February.
All this food talk seems like a natural tie-in to one of the more common resolutions: lose weight. Way to take the fun out of all the cake we have to eat before we find the golden ring!
No matter your traditions, I wish you a healthy, happy, prosperous 2014!
Sources: History.com, University of Pa. Press, USA.gov