Dishing out good luck: Many believe in mystical powers of New Year's meals

December 30, 1990|By Dena Kleiman | Dena Kleiman,New York Times News Service

So another year is almost over and a new one is about to begin with its still unknown cache of joys, disappointments and victories. If there was some way to control these happenings -- to tip the scales in the balance of only the good -- who wouldn't leap at the chance? In fact, societies have been trying to do just that for centuries. Their technique?

Eating beans. (As well as herring, sardines, sauerkraut, pork and other so-called "good luck" foods.)

The notion of eating foods to change one's fortune dates to ancient Babylonia and the world's first known recipes, according to Nan Rothschild, professor of anthropology at Barnard College.

"To say that a food brings good luck is a way of controlling the environment and one's destiny," Dr. Rothschild said.

It is especially at the beginning of each new year that many societies rely on certain foods that are thought to possess magical powers. In the Southern United States, for example, one popular New Year's dish is a casserole of rice and black-eyed peas known as hoppin' John, a name of unknown origin.

The dish is said to bring prosperity although few are sure why. (Some theorize that a little of this concoction goes a long way and that those who eat it on New Year's Day will not go hungry.)

In Italy many people make a ritual out of eating lentils. In Greece, families bake a special bread -- vassilopita -- and bury a coin inside it. "Whoever finds the coin will be wealthy," explains Diane Kochilas, author of "The Food and Wine of Greece" (St. Martin's Press, $22.95).

In Japan, people eat long noodles. In Spain, the custom is to eat 12 individual grapes in the seconds leading up to the New Year. In India, revelers eat fudge.

What ties these New Year's talismans together is the seemingly universal notion that what one does and what one eats during those first delicate hours of the New Year will determine everything that will follow.

"It is as if we are reborn with the New Year and that whatever you do on that first day will affect what you do the rest of the year," said Jack Santino, a professor of folklore and popular culture at Bowling Green University in Ohio.

Mr. Santino said that in Bowling Green, a rural community wherfamilies are largely of German descent, the New Year's tradition is sauerkraut and pork. (Pork is eaten, according to some folklorists, because pigs do not "scratch" the earth the way chickens do and anyone who eats pork on New Year's Day will not have to scratch for a living in the coming year.)

"You want to get off to a good start," said Frances Cattermole-Talley, executive editor of the Encyclopedia of American Popular Belief and Superstition, the first volume of which is to be published early next year by the University of California Press.

According to the volume, Americans welcome the New Year with a wide panoply of good luck foods, including cabbage, herring, honey, sardines and salt.

The truth is that many of these culinary traditions are rooted in a simplistic rationale and the primitive notion that by putting a concept symbolically in one's mouth, one literally can embody it.

"You eat it; you swallow it; it becomes part of yourself," explained Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an anthropologist and folklorist who is chairman of the Department of Performance Studies at New York University.

The symbols, too, are simplistic and their aspirations downright self-centered. Rather than addressing larger societal concerns like world peace and the benefit of mankind, they revolve around selfish wishes like personal gain, abundance, fertility and health.

Ms. Cattermole-Talley says, for example, that many Americans eat herring for the New Year because herring swim in such large numbers that they are a symbol of abundance. Eat a herring, the logic goes, and abundance will be yours in the new year.

In fact, fish are a favorite New Year's fare, Ms. Cattermole-Talley said, because they swim forward and the belief is that people who eat fish will get ahead in the new year, too.

William H. Wiggins, a professor of African American studies at Indiana University, who is the author of "Oh Freedom!: Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations" (University of Tennessee, 1990), says that collard greens and cabbage are good luck foods because they are green and resemble money.

Patsy McLaughlin, a writer in Philadelphia, does not believe in luck in the slightest. Nevertheless every New Year's Day for the past 10 years she has steadfastly prepared black-eyed peas.

"I don't think you can change your fortune," she said. "But I think it is important to have traditions."

Mr. Wiggins, who also eats black-eyed peas every New Year's Day, said, "When you start a new year and eat these traditional foods, you are reaffirming who you are," he said. "If you get off on that good foot, then good luck should surely follow."

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