Photo by Rachel Townsend.
The Seed and the Story column is published every other week in the Post Dispatch and syndicated in the Sunday edition of the Courier. Thanks for reading! To keep up with this column online be sure and follow us on Twitter or Facebook.
As we approach 2012, many of will engage in the tradition of ringing in the New Year at midnight, setting resolutions for the coming days, and sitting down to a dinner of traditional foods meant to bring fortune and good luck. While the items may vary greatly, all around the world people prepare special dishes (what folklorists often call foodways) meant to symbolize opportunity, a prosperous future, and peace in the coming days. In Spain, for example, many people eat twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight. In Sweden and Norway rice pudding is served and in Japan its soba noodles.
Here in central Arkansas and much of the south, black eyed peas, greens and pork are the New Year’s staple. Like any long-standing tradition, there are many regional and family variations. So we asked readers to tell us about the foods they prepare and the symbolism behind them. Vicki King noted that she always eats “pork, black-eyed peas and cabbage for wealth, prosperity and good fortune.” For many the pork is hog jowl, the cheek of a hog which looks and tastes much like thick-cut bacon. Jerry Crowe says his family always cooks the hog jowl in the oven while Polly Taylor says they always fry theirs. As for the greens, some serve cabbage while others prepare turnip greens or collards, all of which are meant to symbolize “folding money,” as Polly Taylor noted. Alongside their greens, many serve cornbread, seen by some to symbolize gold.
While there are many variations in which type of greens and pork are served, black eyed peas, often mean to symbolize coins, are the standard in almost every reply I received. For some readers, they have been engaging in this tradition for as long as they can remember. Others have distinct memories of when they first learned of the traditional dishes. Judy Bennett wrote to say that she first heard of the meal when invited to New Year’s dinner at her friend Linda Green’s house back in 1958. She writes, “Bessie, Linda’s mom, asked me if I had eaten my black-eyed peas and hog jowl yet. I informed her no and that I didn’t know I was supposed to. She began telling the story about it being a good luck for the year thing while she filed a plate with peas and jowl and insisted I eat so I would have good luck for the rest of the year.” Today Judy carries on the tradition, preparing the meal for her own family.
Arkansas readers might find it interesting to note that Eileen Starr, originally from western Pennsylvania, prepares their traditional dish of pork roast and sauerkraut. Even though she lives in Kentucky and carries on the tradition there, her mother is sure to call each year to make sure that they are eating the “appropriate meal,” as she says. Sarah Schmitt from Kentucky wrote in about the tradition of eating picked herring. “Nothing worse can happen to you all year,” she wrote, if you eat pickled herring on New Year’s Day.”
What about you? Are you eating a traditional New Year’s meal? What’s on your plate? If you are the cook, who taught you how to make the dishes and do you plan to pass on these recipes to the younger generation? I’d love to hear all about it. Thanks so much to the readers who submitted comments for this piece. I hope the New Year brings you and your loved ones peace and joy.