In this country, New Year's is a holiday without the universal food traditions of a Thanksgiving or Christmas. However, there are a variety of regional and ethnic customs relating to foods eaten at New Year's.
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The idea behind most of these customs is to eat foods associated in some way with prosperity, health or good luck to start the year off in a positive way.
One of the better-known New Year's traditions involves eating greens. In the South, it is usually collard greens. Other places, it might be kale or spinach or cabbage. The symbolism here is that since green is the color of money and of new growth in nature, it is auspicious to eat something green to ring in the New Year. Of course, green foods also are very healthy, which is a good reason to eat them on New Year's or anytime.
Another color associated with prosperity is gold. This is the reason that cornbread is often considered a good luck food to eat at New Year's. Just don't make it with blue cornmeal.
German Americans, especially in Pennsylvania, start the year out with a meal of pork sausage and sauerkraut. Pork is considered a "rich" food, but there is another more obscure symbolism that favors its use. This has to do with the fact that when pigs root around in the ground for food, they push forward. And so we too should push forward into the New Year.
By the same token, it is considered bad luck to eat fowl on New Year's. That is because chickens and other birds walk backward when they are scratching for food, and New Year's isn't a time to go backwards. Not only that, but the whole idea of scratching around for food is a bit low rent. Whatever you think of them, it is apparent from both of these traditions that whoever thought them up was a lot more mindful of the habits of the animals they were eating than we are today.
In several cultures, eating fish is considered a lucky thing to do on New Year's. In Poland and parts of Northern Europe, it is herring. For the Japanese, it is carp. And although I haven't seen it written anywhere, one would think that here in Alaska it would have to be salmon.
One thing that several cultures share is the idea that if you are serving fish, you should serve the entire fish. This has been attributed to the notion that New Year's is a holiday that celebrates wholeness - we celebrate both the ending of one year and the beginning of another.
While it is easy to dismiss the idea of "lucky" foods as so much superstition, I think there is a lot to be said for food traditions which help us celebrate our holidays and seasons. The idea of starting the year with an intention of cultivating health and prosperity is an appealing one, so why not participate in an old New Year's tradition, or create a new one.
One food that is both auspicious and easy to make is a simple cornbread. Cornbread is a traditional New Year's food that goes well with just about anything.
Recipe: Skillet buttermilk cornbread
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2½ cups cornmeal
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup milk
2 large eggs
2 to 3 tablespoons melted butter
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Add about 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to a 10-inch seasoned iron skillet; place in oven. In a mixing bowl, combine the meal, flour, salt, baking powder and soda. In another bowl, whisk buttermilk and milk with eggs and melted butter.
Using oven mitts or potholders, carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven; swirl slightly so oil coats sides of pan. Pour batter into the skillet then return to oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Bake cornbread for 35 to 45 minutes, until it pulls away from sides of pan and is lightly browned. Cut into squares or wedges.
Recipe from Diana Rattray's "Your Guide to Southern Food."
David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.