TAMPA - Every country, each nationality seems to have a food or group of foods and often a special symbolic dish to celebrate the New Year. Think of them as wishes: for good health, for a prosperous year, a favorable harvest, a wish for love, for children, for shelter, for harmony -- for peace.
On New Year's Day, if you come from German or Pennsylvania Dutch stock, you might dig into a sumptuous dish of pork and sauerkraut.
If you live in the South, or your people came from there, you might set the table with Hoppin' John (black-eyed peas simmered with fatback or cured pork and fluffy rice) or a mess of greens -- or both.
If you live in Japan, you might enjoy kazunoko, a golden-yellow salted herring roe, symbolizing fertility, sometimes served with shaved bonito flakes, or with salted black beans and candied dried fish.
If you are of Mexican heritage, just after midnight on Ano Nuevo it is customary to consume 12 grapes. "One for every month," explains Mexican-born New York restaurateur Barbara Sibley. "To bring prosperity and wishes for the coming year." The color you wear that day has symbolism, too, she said. "Red is a wish for love, yellow for prosperity, but some believe it is the color of your underclothes that matters."
Jan. 1 is one of the busiest days at La Palapa, Sibley's Manhattan restaurant. The Menu de la Cruda (Hangover Specials) brunch is available all day. Those suffering are encouraged to begin the meal with a michelada (fiery beer cocktail) or sangria and a shot of tequila.
Brazilians don white clothing on New Year's Day because it brings peace, said Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, author of "The Brazilian Kitchen: 100 Classic and Contemporary Recipes for the Home Cook." She also mentioned eating grapes, but seven instead of 12. Pomegranates are eaten, as well, "to bring us money," she said.
A Haitian tradition is to eat a rich pumpkin soup, containing either cubes of beef or beef bones. During the French occupation, Haitian slaves prepared this soup for the French but were not allowed to eat it themselves. Now, Jan. 1 is Haitian Independence Day and the soup is shared with friends and neighbors.
The food's shape matters. Consider the twists of the Good Luck Pretzel, a large pretzel eaten in Germany on New Year's Day. In America, the New Year's pretzel seems to be pretty local to Pittsburgh, where many Germans settled. According to Leslie Kribel, owner of Brookline's Kribel's Bakery, where they've been making them since 1931, "The pretzels are a blessing and a tradition. In Germany, priests gave pretzels to little kids when they got their lessons right." As a good luck symbol, on New Year's Day, the children wore them around their necks.
Dried beans and peas are often the fare on New Year's Day; their round shape is thought to symbolize coins. In parts of Italy, people enjoy a hearty dish of lentils with coin-like slices of cotechino, a pork sausage. In the South, the black-eyed peas of Hoppin' John have multiple meanings, but according to the late Bill Neal, one ate them to insure you had "plenty of pocket change."
"Southerners may make resolutions for the New Year," he wrote in "Bill Neal's Southern Cooking," "but they know success (or lack of it) depends more on what is eaten on 1 January than on all the good intentions in the world. More black-eyed peas and collards are consumed on that day than any other time of the year -- part of an antique gastronomic insurance policy."
According to Nathalie Dupree in "New Southern Cooking," "The black-eyed peas are said to represent each Southern soldier who died for the South during the War Between the States."
The Lee Brothers, whose recipe I have used here, wrote, "We are thrilled that we don't need to know how the dish got its name to love the way the flavors come together in it . . . We get excited about Hoppin' John all year long."
Eating greens is a New Year's Southern tradition because of their resemblance to money. Bill Neal said collards were eaten "for a steady supply of folding green in the coming year." The theme is common to many cultures. Besides, greens are good for you and taste great, so eating them is at least a safe bet you'll have good health.
Pork could be considered the king of good-luck foods. It's part of many New Year's Day meals, from roasts to ham, hocks to sausages. In some parts of Germany, little pigs made of marzipan are given as good luck presents New Year's Day. Marzipan pigs may decorate holiday tables in Austria, where suckling pig is served for the evening's celebratory meal. The symbolism, according to the "Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America" by Andrew F. Smith, is "the pig roots forward into the future." In a similar notion, chicken and turkey are avoided on New Year's Day because they bury their pasts "by scratching backward in the dirt."
Whatever you are planning for New Year's Day, we send our best wishes for health, happiness and good fortune. And don't forget your New Year's Day Good Luck Pretzel.