Traditional foods from many places ensure good luck at New Year's feasts A MELTING POT OF Good Wishes & Food

December 26, 1993|By Edythe Preet | Edythe Preet,Contributing WriterLos Angeles Times Syndicate

All over the world, the new year comes in with a bang. Bells toll the 12 strokes of midnight. People hammer pots and pans, blow whistles, toot horns and set off firecrackers. The racket is not just a group of revelers carried away by the euphoria of the moment. Ancient people believed loud noises would drive away evil spirits.

Ensuring that good luck will be abundant during the coming months lies at the heart of New Year's celebrations. Perhaps the best method is to surround yourself with allies willing to help you accomplish your objectives. Eating and drinking together is humanity's oldest alliance-cementing custom. The very word "companion" means "one who breaks bread with another." Since New Year's Day is the most auspicious time to renew ties of kinship, it is traditional to gather with friends then and feast on special food.

Toasting the new year can be traced back to Britain's wassailing ceremony. Wine was rare, but there was an abundant apple harvest and fermented apple cider was a favorite brew. Blessing the orchards became an important New Year ritual. Laden with spicy apple cakes and tankards of cider, family and friends gathered around the biggest tree. A cake was placed in its branches, and cider was poured around the roots while everyone wished everyone else a hearty "Waes hael!" (Be whole!) for the coming year.

Today, the new year is often welcomed with a glass of Champagne, and oddly enough, the English had a hand in that, too. When wine was shipped in barrels, if it spoiled, the whole shipment was lost. Seventeenth-century Englishmen, who had developed a taste for wine from the city of Champagne, France, began to decant the pricey stuff into bottles as soon as it arrived. Imagine their surprise when they discovered that fermentation continued, producing a bubbly wine far superior to the original product.

The French saved their reputation as wine connoisseurs by perfecting the process. Dom Pierre Perignon, monk and cellar-master at the Abbey of Hautvilliers, invented the heavier bottle and the cork tied on with string. He is also credited with discovering the secret of blending different wines to create a superior flavor. Legend tells us that when he tasted the first sip of his piece de resistance, he exclaimed, "Look! I'm drinking stars!"

Calling on friends to wish them well on New Year's Day dates back to ancient Rome, when guests were given cakes made with honey so their lives would be filled with sweetness. According to an old Scottish superstition, the person who first steps over the threshold decides the luck of the year. If it was a man bearing a lump of coal, a coin and a piece of bread (symbols of warmth, money and food), he was treated to a glass of whiskey and a slice of brandy-drenched black bun cake.

Almost every culture has its "lucky" New Year's food, and America's melting pot offers quite a selection. Money is a favorite theme. Scandinavian people hope to conjure immense wealth by eating herring, fish that swim in huge schools. Italians eat pasta smothered with little coin-shaped lentils. Germans prepare pork with spiced sauerkraut because pigs root in a forward direction and cabbage represents silver.

Some wishes are more general. The Dutch enjoy puffy, fruit-studded doughnuts, hoping for a full, round year. Japanese families eat buckwheat noodles at midnight to guarantee a long life.

In the deep South, hopping John is made with black-eyed peas that swell and grow more flavorful the longer they are cooked, just as life is supposed to swell with pleasure the longer we live.

Personally, I'll take the African-American tradition of conjuring up both luck and money by preparing pots of beans and greens. While they cook, I'll make a list of self-improving resolutions. Then, I'll hedge my bets by inviting Lady Luck to come sit by my side while I share heaping bowls

of these tasty offerings with a group of family and friends.


Southern hopping John

Makes 8 servings

2 cups dried black-eyed peas

6 cups cold water

1 pound bacon, cut into 1/2 -inch dice

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 1/2 cups long-grain rice, washed and drained

salt, pepper

Place black-eyed peas in colander and rinse with water. Transfer peas to large pan and add 6 cups water. Bring to boil over high heat. Lower heat and simmer, partially covered, 1 hour.

Meanwhile, place bacon in large skillet and fry until crisp. Drain bacon bits on plate lined with paper towel. Set aside.

Add onions to fat remaining in skillet and saute over medium heat until onions are transparent, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

When beans are just tender, stir in bacon, onions and rice. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until rice is fluffy, 20 to 25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ham hocks with greens

Makes 8 servings

4 smoked ham hocks

2 teaspoons black pepper

4 pounds young collard greens

1 onion, minced


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