January is loaded with New Year traditions and celebrations. Every culture (probably since the beginning of time) has some way to acknowledge, welcome, and bless the New Year. Being from the South, my family is steeped in New Year’s tradition mostly related to food. It was a must that every New Year’s we went to visit my grandmother and eat black-eyed peas and cornbread with a side of cabbage. The black-eyed peas were for luck and the cabbage was for money in the coming year.
The ingredients for Hoppin’ John are inexpensive, easy to find, and there are many variations, limited only by your personal preference. Black-eyed peas (also known as cow peas) are a great source of protein and fiber, making them a bang-for-your-buck nutritional powerhouse. While I personally can’t stand black-eyed peas my family adores them, so this is my take on a Southern staple.
1 pound dried black-eyed peas* 4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbl olive oil (or vegetable) 2 stalks celery, diced
2 tbl butter 1 red bell pepper, diced
1 pkg salt pork** 1 medium onion, diced
4-5 C chicken stock salt & pepper, to taste
Cayenne pepper, to taste
2 tbl white vinegar or hot-pepper vinegar, optional
white or brown rice, for serving
*fresh or canned black-eyed peas can be used
**4-6 strips of thick-sliced bacon can be used, but salt pork is now readily available at Wal-Mart, Target and most grocers; it adds a richer flavor
Start by sorting the peas to remove any stones or “bad” peas. (Look for discolored, broken, or blemished peas.)This is a great job for the kiddos!
After sorting, soak your black-eyed peas in cool water for a few hours. If you don’t want to soak your beans first, you will have a considerably longer cooking time…the longer the soak, the shorter overall cooking time. I usually soak mine for 3 hours or so, which gives me about a 1-hour cooking time; 6+ hours or overnight can get the cook time down to 30 minutes or less. This is also easily adaptable for a slow-cooker, so you can “set and forget” if you prefer. When they are through soaking, rinse and drain and set aside.
In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat butter and oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic, onion, bell pepper, and celery and stir. Cook for 3-4 minutes or until the veggies are lightly browned. Add peas, salt & pepper, and cayenne; stir until everything is well combined. Pour in the chicken stock until the peas are just covered with liquid; add the salt pork. If more liquid is needed you can add additional stock or finish off with water. Stir well and bring the mixture to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer (covered) until peas are tender. (I start checking after 30 minutes, then every 15-20 minutes, depending on how firm they are. If you are used to cooking with dried bean or lentils, it’s the same process.) Stir in vinegar (if using), then taste for seasonings.
For a thicker, creamier consistency, take a cup of peas (with a bit of liquid) and smash with a fork until it’s basically a starchy mush. Mix back into the pot to thicken. Serve spooned over a bed of white or brown rice. Round out a complete meal by adding a salad and serving of protein like a pork chop, chicken breast or small steak. Salud!
New Year’s Fun Facts:
Traditions abound on New Year’s Day! Customs and celebrations cross all cultures, ethnicities and religions. Many traditions are steeped in superstition, and are intended to bring good luck and fortune or prevent bad fates. Most of us think about the ball dropping in Times Square, toasting, fireworks and football games. Here are some of the more common, less known, and truly unusual
Auld Lang Syn
This is the most commonly sung song on New Year’s Eve. It is an old Scottish song that was first published by the poet Robert Burns in 1796. It has been remarked that “Auld Lang Syne” is one of the most popular songs nobody knows the words to. Translated it means “old long since” and refers to times gone by. It was made popular by bandleader Guy Lombardo at a New York New Year’s Eve party in 1929.
Scotland is also the home of the Hogmanay (hog-mah-NAY), a New Year’s celebration which includes the tradition of “first footing”. Shortly after midnight on New Year’s Eve, neighbors pay each other visits bearing gifts and New Year’s wishes. Traditionally visitors carried a piece of coal, some bread, some money, and some greenery…all for luck. The coal was to ensure the home was always warm, bread so everyone in the house would have enough food to eat, money to assure prosperity, and greenery for a long life. The visitor would also take a pan of dust or ashes out of the house with them when they left, symbolizing the departure of the old year.
In Japan the most important holiday is the New Year, and is a symbol of renewal. Bonenkai (forget-the-year parties) are held in December to say goodbye to all the problems and concerns of the past year and get ready for a new beginning. Houses are scrubbed clean and misunderstandings and grudges are forgiven. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples strike their gongs 108 times to banish 108 types of human weakness. New Year’s Day is joyous and no work is to be done. Children receive small gifts with money inside and sending New Year’s cards is a popular tradition.
The ritual in Spain of eating twelve grapes at midnight is to secure twelve happy months in the coming year. The tradition, dating back to 1909, is to eat one grape at each stroke of the clock (not as easy as it sounds). Each grape represents a different month of the year, so if the 5th grape is a bit sour, May might be a difficult month. The goal is to swallow all of the grapes before the last stroke of midnight.
Pork & Fish
We already know that beans, peas and lentils are eaten for luck and cooked greens are symbolic of fortune. There is also the custom of eating pork on New Year’s to symbolize progress. The idea is that the animal pushes forward, rooting itself in the ground before moving. It is also served to signify wealth and prosperity.
Fish, particularly cod, is a popular celebration food. Fish can be preserved and transported easily, even before refrigeration and modern means. In addition, the Catholic Church’s policy against red meat on religious holidays helped make fish common at feasts. Many countries and cultures include fish in their celebrations and traditions.
Not only are there traditions and superstitions regarding luck and prosperity in the New Year, there are also superstitions regarding bad luck. In addition to eating lucky foods and performing certain rituals, there are also some things to avoid.
For example, it is considered bad luck to eat lobster on New Year’s because they move backwards, and this symbolizes setbacks. Chicken are also discouraged because they scratch backwards, which could generate regret or dwelling on the past. Another superstition warns against all winged fowl because your good luck could fly away.