Almost every country and culture across the globe has New Year’s traditions designed to bring about good luck and fortune in the coming year. Some of these traditions seem a bit odd – in Spain people wear red underwear and eat green grapes and in Denmark friends and family may toss dishes at your front door. In Scotland, bonfires and fire festivals are held to “burn away evil spirits” and welcome in good luck for the new year. Not surprisingly, in the American South, we center our New Year’s Day traditions around food, with black-eyed peas, collard greens, pork, and cornbread eaten as symbolic staples on this auspicious day. Read on for the stories behind some of these traditional New Year’s Day foods!
Did you know that black-eyed peas aren’t even a pea? They’re technically a bean, but since both peas and beans signify wealth and good luck in the coming year, the specifics don’t matter to most of us. But how did this pea….er, bean come to be such a popular food for New Year’s Day meals? There are two competing stories. The older legend comes from the Italian and Spanish tradition of eating lentils on New Year’s Day because they were once believed to resemble Roman coins, so eating them would bring wealth in the new year. Since black-eyed peas are a winter crop in the south, they would be the most readily available option for those early settlers attempting to recreate the tradition in the New World.
The other, and perhaps more likely source of the tradition dates back to the Civil War. When General Sherman led his march of the Union Army to the sea, he left a path of destruction, instructing his troops to burn and pillage anything in their paths. Legend has it that the Yankee troops didn’t recognize the humble black-eyed peas as a human food source, believing them to be animal feed instead. Stored peas and even some still in the fields that December were left behind, so the now destitute Southerners were able to dine on them throughout the Christmas and New Year’s holiday seasons in 1864, and considered themselves lucky to have them. The black-eyed pea has symbolized luck and good fortune to Southerners ever since.
It’s easy to see how greens of all types can resemble money, and eating them is believed to lead to wealth and prosperity in the new year. The tradition dates back to ancient times, with cabbage being the green of choice in the time of Julius Caesar and Aristotle. At that time, the superstition was centered more around health, with the ancient Egyptians eating cabbage to aid in digestion, and the philosopher Aristotle reportedly ingesting plenty of cabbage prior to drinking wine in order to keep the alcohol from “fuddling his prudent academic head.” This ancient cabbage was likely a variety of kale, and today, a batch of any leafy greens from kale to cabbage to collards to turnip and mustard greens serve the purpose of bringing about health and wealth in the new year.
Health and wealth sounds great, but did you know collard greens can also cure headaches and ward off evil spirits? According to legends told in the deep South, hanging a fresh collard leaf over your door will keep evil spirits from entering your home, and a fresh leaf placed on the forehead promises to cure a headache – definitely something needed after a late and champagne-filled New Year’s Eve celebration!
Hog Jowls….and other Pork Delicacies!
If you aren’t familiar with exactly what a jowl is, you’re not alone. This cut of meat comes from the pig’s cheek, and it is not something most of us encounter every day. Rarely eaten as a standalone meat, the jowl is typically added to season or enhances the flavor of another dish, such as the collard greens and black-eyed pea you’re already eating for your New Year’s Day feast. As an accompaniment, most traditional Southern New Year’s meals include a pork roast or ham to satisfy the pig requirement.
But how does eating pork on New Year’s Day bring you good luck? It has to do with the way pigs, as opposed to other animals, behave. While most of the animals we have been eating through the holidays, like chicken and turkey, scratch backward, a pig buries his snout into the ground and moves forward, pushing obstacles out of his way as he goes. Doesn’t this sound like the way you want to attack your goals and obstacles in the coming New Year?
Did you think the corn bread on the table was just there as the appropriate bread for soaking up that delicious broth from the black-eyed peas and collard greens? While this is a great way to use the Southern stable, corn bread has its own legend among New Year’s Day foods. While either yellow or white corn meal can be used, the yellow version is more appropriate for New Year’s Day meals, because the golden color represents gold coins and wealth in the coming year. Making your cornbread with actual kernels of corn could bring you even more financial bounty, as the kernels represent actual nuggets of gold.
What NOT to Eat on New Year’s Day
Of course you don’t have to follow the New Year’s Day Rules of the American South with your culinary choices, but you may want to know what foods to avoid lest you bring bad luck upon yourself. While some cultures replace the pork with fish on New Year’s Day (a fish’s silver scales can represent silver coins and wealth ahead), you should avoid lobster if possible. Lobsters are known to move in a backward direction, and eating them on New Year’s Day is believed to bring about setbacks and bad luck in the new year. The same can be said for chicken, since the birds scratch backward rather than pushing forward as they hunt for grain. Many people believe all poultry should be avoided on New Year’s Day, lest your good luck “fly away” from you.
Whatever you choose to eat today, we wish you health, wealth, prosperity and good luck in 2020!