Holidays, as celebrated throughout the United States, are closely tied to annual feasts of traditional foods. Thanksgiving has its turkey and pumpkin pie, Christmas its goose, Hanukah its fried potato pancakes, St. Patrick’s Day is usually marked with plates of corned beef and cabbage, Easter its lamb, Independence Day and Memorial Day bring out the grilled hot dogs and hamburgers.
Beyond champagne, however, the tradition for New Year’s Eve and Day depends on what region of the US you’re eating in.
All of the foods eaten on the last night of the old year and the first day of the new one are customarily consumed with the intention of forecasting “good luck” in the forthcoming three-hundred sixty-five days. Most come from other countries, imported by immigrants.
There’s no documentation on why pork dominates as a New Year’s Day specialty.
Some speculate that it stemmed from the symbolism of prosperity represented by the pig: cows, horses, and chickens all serve a practical purpose, but if a farmer had a pig, it signaled his wealth.
Others suggest it is because wild boars were once hunted in Europe’s forests on the year’s first day.
A third explanation points to the fact that pigs push the earth forward with their nose, looking ahead, while chickens, turkeys, geese, squab, and other poultry scratch the dirt backwards. Curiously enough, while turkey remains popular in the two holidays preceding it, there’s no known regional American custom of serving any fowl on New Year’s Day.
As the largest non-English speaking immigrant group to America, the Germanic tradition of serving baked ham, pork loin, chops or sausage remains firmly entrenched in areas settled by large numbers of Germans and Swedes, be it Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, or North Dakota.
A specific version is rooted in Pennsylvania and was carried to Ohio by the “Pennsylvania Dutch” (which actually refers to the German settlers there, not the Dutch), which always includes sauerkraut with pork on New Year’s Day. Throughout the 17th, 18th, 19th and even early 20th centuries, the Pennsylvania Dutch shredded the last of the autumn harvest’s cabbage and, cured in crocks of vinegar brine, placed in the dark of cellars.
As the Pennsylvania Patriot News reporter M. Diane McCormick observed, it wasn’t for good luck that kraut and pork appeared every January the first: “…there’s pragmatism behind any Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. The first sauerkraut went into the ground in late fall and was ready in 28 days — just in time for the holidays. Slaughtering followed as cold weather set in. The lesser cuts of meat were preserved for the long, lean year ahead. The finer pork roasts were enjoyed in fresh holiday feasts.”
Bacon (or hambone, or ham back fat) is part of the famous “Hoppin’ John,” but the central ingredient to that recipe, dating back to late 1600s Colonial Georgia, North Carolina and southern Virginia, is the humble but flavorful Black-Eyed Pea, sometimes called the Field Pea. Sometimes served with rice, or as a side dish to a main pork entrée, the meal is a direct import from West Africa, brought by Africans seized from their homeland and enslaved in the U.S. South. The peas (beans, really) are said to symbolize coins, and a hope for financial prosperity.
Along with Hoppin’ John, two other Southern foods are also served, whether it was its common availability or what its distinct colors represented which first brought them to the New Year’s table. Cornbread represented gold and collard greens represented the green of cash. A superstition associated with New Year’s Day Hoppin’ John also holds that three peas be left on the plate, but what was intended by this is unclear.
One New Year’s Day custom which began in the 1880s, fell out of use and revived a full century later, uses the traditional pig in form only. Among the local residents of the New York State town of Saratoga Springs, the Victorians began a custom of serving a hard candy pig, colored bright pink, which was then hammered with a small mallet, the shattered pieces shared among New Year’s Day guests. Saratoga Springs was popular as a summer colony with, wealthy Americans who flocked there for its horse races, gambling houses and mineral springs in the warm weather, but the pink peppermint pig tradition was enjoyed only in winter and thus remained largely a local custom of the town’s working- and middle-class.
It nearly faded entirely – until Saratoga Springs candymaker Mike Fitzgerald revived it in the 1980s, producing the authentic version, available online through his store Saratoga Sweets. According to the store, the peppermint pig is traditionally cracked in a velvet bag and as each guest takes a piece they’re expected to recall the highlight of the passing year.
You can purchase one for next year at:
Why peppermint, instead of cherry or some other pink-related flavor?
The herb peppermint has been used for centuries as a stomach sedative, especially helpful after overindulging in food and alcohol on New Year’s Eve. In fact, coincidental to the peppermint candy pig, in the wealthy Southern plantation homes of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Pink Peppermint Ice Cream was once reserved only for the feasting during the Twelve Nights of the Holiday Season, when the biggest night of feasting and gift-giving was not on Christmas Day but rather on New Year’s Day. Tradition holds that the ice cream, now made with the peppermint candy cane ground into vanilla ice cream, was a favorite of the woman who helped popularize the dessert in general, Dolley Madison.
After nearly five centuries of intermarriage and migration in the U.S., New York State’s once-distinct Dutch-American culture has vanished and with it, so too have their traditional New Year’s Day foods. Well into the mid-19th century, “New Year’s Cakes” were familiar to New Yorkers.
Baked and served only for this holiday, these were really cookies known, in native Dutch, as nieuwjaarskoeke, originating in the eastern Netherlands, immediately familiar to the taste with the savory caraway seed as ingredient, and iced with lettering. These are similar to the crisp traditional koekje (cookie) of the Netherlands, made in a waffle iron and also served a New Year’s, where they were more often baked in wood molds, carved with elaborate engravings which left pressed images of windmills, religious symbols, or heroic figures, Two other baked desserts served on the year’s first day were rum-soaked fried-doughnuts called olykoeks, and a chewy cookie sweetened by honey.
Other New Year’s Day foods once common in regional America have also faded as generations of immigrants blended into the mainstream. Similar to the Black-eyed Pea representing small coin, lentils and chickpeas are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day in Italy and France, respectively. The custom was carried by Italian immigrants to New Jersey and Connecticut and from French immigrants to Maine and Louisiana. Polish immigrants to Illinois followed their own homeland’s distinct custom, serving the fish carp or herring to their guests. In Florida, descendants of Greek immigrants, simultaneously celebrating their Saint Basil’s Day feast annually serve a yeasty lemon cake called vasilopeta, in which a silver coin is placed.
As immigrants from other countries continue to settle in the U.S., some New Year’s Day food traditions have continued, or been more recently introduced. In the Japanese communities of California, and many Japanese restaurants in San Francisco, buckwheat toshikoshi soba noodles have traditionally been eaten, its name signifying the end of the old year and one who consumes it in its entirety, without breaking the noodle, is promised to see many more New Year’s Days ahead.
Many Latino New Year’s celebrations in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona have now assumed a tradition from Spain, which actually postdates the Spanish arrival and colonization of South and Central America and the migrations into the western U.S. Called “las doce uvas de la suerte,” or the twelve grapes of luck, it is only 102 years old, originating with Spanish grape-growers.
One grape is rapidly eaten with the last twelve tolls of the bell which lead to midnight and the turn of the year. Some traditions hold that each successive grape will represent the coming twelve months, so that if the third one is sweet, for example, then March will be a good one, or if the ninth is sour, then September will bring trouble.