Of New Year's Feasts And Fortune
Luck: We crave it, savor it, and fear we’ll never get enough. In kitchens around the world, there are plenty of ways to invite good luck to the table, and never a better time to explore the possibilities than at the fresh start of a new year.
At the stroke of midnight on December 31, revelers in Spain eat twelve grapes for luck, one for each month of the coming year. The practice began a century ago when growers sought a creative solution to an overly plentiful grape harvest. The custom has since spread to Venezuela and other Spanish-speaking countries.
Nearly as tantalizing as the foods themselves are the tongue-tickling names of the dishes Italians prepare for their celebrations at the new year. Cotecchino con lenticchie is a hearty dish of sausage and simmered lentils. Chiacchiere are balls of fried dough lavished with honey and powdered sugar.
Sweets abound in Mexico, Great Britain, and Greece. In Scandinavia, cooks hide coins or other surprises in baked goods and desserts for luck.
Cabbages, collards, and other greens are popular in many cultures because the leaves suggest paper money. Rounded legumes resemble coins, and since beans and peas grow larger when cooked, eating them encourages prosperity.
Pigs bring good luck in Germany and Austria, and in the American South where cooks greet the new year with pork on the table each January first. Traditional Muslim communities in Algeria and Morocco serve chicken and couscous during the North African new year’s celebrations that continue into January.
In China, the new year begins in late winter. Families gather to share meals that include fish to symbolize abundance. Sweet cakes made from sticky rice encourage richness in the new year. Noodles represent long life, and it’s considered bad luck to cut them. A similar custom exists in a different locale thousands of miles away: When the Persian New Year arrives in spring, cooks prepare noodles to represent the continuation of life.
The Jewish New Year falls in autumn. People give thanks for the season’s harvest and ask forgiveness for their transgressions in the prior year. Feasting on cakes, dates, and apples dipped in honey signifies the hope for a sweet new year. Pomegranates with their abundant seeds remind congregants to perform good works in the months ahead.
Lentils, peas, apples, grapes, and sausage – none of these ingredients are what we consider festive, or even very distinctive. In fact, they are just the opposite. They are commonplace and humble, in contrast to the expansive and celebratory spirit of embarking on a New Year. So why do we honor and practice these culinary rituals?
Why do so many people believe that beans and greens, noodles and fish can actually bring us good luck?
Preparing traditional dishes requires time and mindfulness. A cook must plan the menu and budget, shop for ingredients, substitute when necessary, dirty the kitchen; then adjust for extra guests, for allergies, or for other intolerances. All for a meal that is devoured in a fraction of the time it took to plan and prepare.
What makes these meals memorable – and sometimes even magical – is what happens when people gather to share them. Around a crowded table, extraordinary things have been known to take place as a room fills with conversation and conviviality.
Glasses clink. Elbows bump. Silver sometimes clatters to the floor. The room is too hot or sometimes it’s too cold. Children fuss. The kitchen is a mess. People raise their glasses or bow their heads in prayer, or both.
In these moments, almost anything seems possible: abundance, health, family, dreams, hope, laughter, peace, a new beginning. And truly, could we ask for any better luck than that?
Maple Glazed Pork Tenderloin
A 2- to 3-pound pork tenderloin
1 tablespoon cracked pepper; black or mixed
1 teaspoon salt or more to taste
Extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons prepared Dijon mustard
3 to 4 tablespoons maple syrup (do not use artificially flavored pancake syrup)
Roll the tenderloin in the pepper and salt. In a heavy skillet on medium-high, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the skillet but don’t allow it to smoke. Add the meat and sear it on all sides until brown. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the mustard and the maple syrup, and stir until combined with the pan juices. Turn the seared meat until coated on all sides. Cover and continue to cook for 20 minutes or until desired internal temperature (160 to 165 is recommended) is reached. Makes about six servings.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Luck: A Collection of Facts, Fiction, Incantations and Verse, published by Lorimer Press. Used by permission of the author.