Eat Your Luck: New Year’s Traditions of the South

We welcome guest author Liz Williams of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, LA.

Because the American South is as much a nation of immigrants as the rest of the country, there is no shortage of celebrations for each coming New Year.  Besides the various firework shows, the “drops” of the symbols of many Southern cities, and the drinking of champagne at midnight, many traditional meals served to celebrate the New Year are all about capturing luck for the days ahead.

One type of luck is fortune.  To prepare for that, many New Year’s meals include greens on the table - the verdant green leaves representing stacks of money.  Collard greens are widely available this time of year, so they are often served.  Which greens are served really depends on your geography and heritage.  Cabbage, for example, is another frequent stand in for money.  A fresh spinach salad could be a refreshing change from long-cooked pork-seasoned greens, especially as the holiday season is notorious for its rich food and excess.

If greens represent cash money, peas, beans and other legumes represent wealth in the form of coins.  Hoppin’ John, black eyed peas, lentils, and other beans are traditional depending on your heritage.  Some families slice vegetables into coin shapes and serve them too, just in case greens and beans weren’t enough. Lots of carrots and fried okra add even more coins to the table.

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Besides wealth, good luck can mean an escape from hunger.  Having enough food to feed your family is important, especially for the immigrants who came to America to escape famine.  Bread – especially wheat bread or cornbread - is also served on the New Year’s table to celebrate actually having enough food for the coming year.

While a ham may be traditional Southern New Year’s fare, if you decide to break from that tradition, pork in some form can still represent looking ahead.  Pigs root in a forward direction, so eating pork represents the strength to move forward into whatever may come in the new year.  Hand in hand with the eating of pork, is the prohibition against eating things that are backwards at this New Year meal.  That means no crawfish – since they walk backwards - and no chicken since they scratch toward the back.  We can’t be caught looking backwards in the fact of the New Year. And even duck, goose, doves, and other flying birds should not be eaten; they might fly away with all of your luck!

A celebratory meal in the New Year, for those who have a réveillon at midnight, is a wonderful opportunity to share with friends.  Any traditional luxe foods and champagne make for a gathering around a table that starts the new year off with friendship.  It is the sitting together talking and celebrating each other that makes a réveillon meal the perfect type of celebration for New Year’s Eve.

For dessert, more coins in the shape of cookies.  The tradition of baking pennies into small cakes and cookies still persists, but round shapes of all sorts represent the way that one year simply flows into the next with the rising of the sun.

Sean Brock's Cornmeal-Fried Pork Chops with Goat Cheese Smashed Potatoes & Green Tomato Relish

Besides these more general Southern traditions, families have special traditions based on their heritage.  That special twist personalizes the celebrations.  Perhaps you celebrate the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes or raisins, one with each stroke of the midnight clock.  Perhaps you celebrate health in the Chinese tradition of a very long noodle.  Regardless, before you make your New Year’s resolution to go on a diet or eat more healthily, etc. in the coming year, celebrate the New Year with tradition and with others.  

Happy New Year to all, y'all!

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