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Deep dishes

Eat right on New Year's Day and you’ll be lucky the rest of the year

Photo: Emily Flake, License: N/A

Emily Flake

Here in the United States we celebrate the rollover of the yearly odometer at midnight Dec. 31, but the rest of the world has differing ideas about when the new year begins. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is celebrated every autumn, while Chinese New Year, celebrated throughout East Asia, marks the beginning of spring. Meanwhile, Muslim New Year (Ras as-Sana al Hijreya) slides around the calendar like a pig on ice, a fact you may never have noticed since the entire celebration consists of quietly contemplating mortality.

No matter whether you’re celebrating the new year’s arrival by watching the ball drop while singing “Auld Lang Syne” in Times Square or pitching firecrackers at Chinese dragon parade dancers in Beijing, chances are you’ll be celebrating afterward with strikingly similar chow. Nearly every culture seems to eat for luck – universally employing certain foods on New Year’s Day in hopes of attracting wealth, love or other good fortune during the rest of the year. Do a bit of research and you find that these ritual edibles fall more or less into three categories: foods that remind people of money, foods that swell, and round foods (includes the subcategory of inedible round objects inserted into food).

Greens, i.e. leafy vegetables, are the main money food because green is commonly the color of currency, and also, greens fold like paper money. In Germany and Eastern Europe the green of choice is cabbage; in the U.S. it’s usually kale or collards, while some Chinese New Year’s eats are wrapped in lettuce leaves because in Cantonese dialect the word for lettuce sounds much like the word for “rising fortune.” Fat-licious pork products are also popular New Year’s good fortune fare, since it is hoped that prosperity will follow after eating such a “rich” food.

Foods that swell symbolize progress and prosperity, expanding several times over as they cook in the same way you want your fortune to grow. Rice appears in many cultures, from the Deep South to, big surprise, every country in Asia; besides growing in volume as it cooks, its many grains signify abundance. Noodles are another food that swell as they cook; the Japanese literally suck down super-long soba noodles, representing long life, one at a time on New Year’s Eve. (It’s considered really bad juju to break the strand, though.) Same deal in China, where uncut noodles are also eaten to symbolize longevity and uninterrupted good health in the coming months.

Round foods are doubly propitious, symbolizing the continuity of the rebirth of old into new as well as wealth – y’know, because coins are round. Thus lentils are lucky in Italy, Brazil and Germany, while all kinds of countries believe it’s particular good luck to eat circular cakes with lucky tokens – yes, round, like coins and rings – baked inside. In Greece the first slice of the vassilopitta is reserved for St. Basil, but he who finds the coin baked inside is in for an especially lucky year. Same in Mexico for whoever finds the clay doll baked into the rosca de reyes (king’s cake). In Latino countries there is a midnight ritual of eating 12 (round) grapes right at midnight on Dec. 31 – one for each chime of the clock. This one appears to be a less-than-organic tradition, originating just a century ago when grape growers in Spain, facing a particularly abundant grape harvest, invented it to divest their surplus.

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