Feasts of Fortune
Published in the Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sun Sentinel, Hartford Courant on December 30, 2009
Published in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review in January 2010
nothing quite like a New Year’s Eve party. Revelers
clinking champagne glasses, blasting off fireworks and noisemakers,
knocking loaves of bread against houses, and devouring 12 grapes at the
stroke of midnight. Wait a minute! When did tossing bread
and eating grapes become part of our holiday traditions?
Where we live greatly impacts how we ring in the New Year. While
fireworks and noisemakers remain integral parts of the festivities,
most countries possess at least one unique culinary custom for
heralding the arrival of another year.
In Ireland, where famine had decimated the land, celebrations often
focus on sustenance. Here folklore dictates that on December 31
citizens should strike the side of their houses with a loaf of bread
while reciting a prayer for a hunger-free year. Likewise,
friends and family should gather together for a large, lengthy meal,
which will set the pattern for 12 subsequent months of prosperity.
Want to ensure sweetness and fortune in the coming year? Follow
Spain’s example and consume a grape at every chiming of the clock at
midnight. Each grape supposedly sweetens the corresponding month.
Portugal possesses a similar tradition regarding grapes. However,
with each grape eaten the person must make a wish for the upcoming
While Spaniards and the Portuguese gobble up 12 grapes, Italians nibble
on a dozen desserts at the all-night dinner party the Feast of St.
Sylvester. The sweets signify the months of the year as
well as Christ’s 12 apostles. They include such Italian treats as
biscotti and the nut-filled nougat torrone, and fruits such as pears,
plums and apricots.
On New Year’s Day in Greece families share vasilopita or St. Basil’s
Bread. Baked with a coin buried deep in the dough, the sweet
bread is sliced by the head of the household and then divvied up
between family members. Whoever receives the piece with the coin
will experience luck in the coming year.
To guarantee that everyone meets with good fortune, some bakers spell
out the new year in nuts or cloves on the dough. In Dr. Nikoleta
Kolovos’s family the top of the vasilopita is adorned with small pieces
of dough that symbolize the family members. “As our
families grew, so did the number of pieces of dough. My mom even
includes our cats,” says St. Louis, Mo. physician.
In Austria pork, rather than sweets, secures success in the following
months. As a result, Austrians hold lavish feasts of
stuffed and roasted suckling pig. Since piglets are symbols
of good luck, small marzipan or chocolate pigs also decorate the dinner
Austrians are not alone in their belief that pigs bring
prosperity. In Bulgaria, Spain, and other parts of Europe
pork stars in New Year’s Day dinners.
Even on our shores pork plays an essential part in holiday
meals. In some sections of the U.S. boiled ham and cabbage
bring forth fortune while in other regions kielbasa and sauerkraut do
Various thoughts exist on why we eat pork on January first.
Some suggest that the rich meat signifies a rich life.
Others point to the pig’s role as a symbol of wealth and fertility
For Jody Rabenau, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, Penn., pork means
progress in the future. “As my family says, ‘A pig roots
forward,” she says.
In the American South pork serves not as the main ingredient but as the
seasoning for the traditional New Year’s Day dish “hoppin’
John.” Consisting of black-eyed peas, rice, onions and a
bit of pork, hoppin’ John began as a meal for plantation slaves and the
How such humble fare became the food of good fortune can be partly
explained by Southern folklore. Folk wisdom states that by
“eating poor,” i.e. consuming slave cuisine, on New Year’s Day, people
will attract rich foods and wealth for the rest of the
year. Additionally, old Southern rhymes maintain that
black-eyed peas are “lucky” and will bring forth abundant and heartier
food in the future.
No matter where you’re ringing in the New Year, you’ll undoubtedly greet it with good fortune and good food.
Serves 10 to 12
2 cups dried black eyed peas, rinsed and soaked overnight in water
6 cups chicken stock
2 medium white onions, chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ pound smoked ham
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 bay leaves
salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
4 slices of bacon, cooked and diced
3 cups steamed white rice
In a large stockpot place the peas, 4 cups of chicken stock, onions,
bell pepper, garlic, ham, pepper flakes, cayenne pepper and bay
leaf. Bring the contents to a boil, stir, reduce the heat and
allow the ingredients to simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 40 minutes.
Add the remaining 2 cups of stock as needed. When finished, the
peas will be soft and creamy.
Remove the bay leaves, add salt and pepper and taste to ensure proper
seasoning. Sprinkle in the diced bacon and stir until well
combined. Serve over the steamed white rice.
Serves 8 to 10
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¾ cup granulated sugar
6 eggs, at room temperature
Zest from 2 oranges
Zest from 2 lemons
½ cup evaporated milk, at room temperature
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 coin, washed and wrapped in foil
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon milk
¼ cup blanched almond slivers
2 to 3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 10-inch springform pan and set aside.
Using an electric mixer, cream the butter in a large mixing
bowl. With the mixer still running, slowly add the sugar
followed by the eggs. Add the zest and beat until
In a separate bowl sift together the flour, baking powder and
salt. Gradually add the flour and milk to the wet
ingredients, alternating between the two and beating until the batter
is smooth. Insert the wrapped coin into the batter.
Spoon the batter into the greased pan, smooth out the top and then
brush the egg wash over it. Sprinkle the blanched almond slivers
over the coated top. Bake in the preheated oven for 35 to
45 minutes, until golden brown. Cool for 15 minutes on a
wire rack before removing from the pan and dusting the vassilopita with
3 egg whites
1 teaspoon water
48 concord grapes, washed and stems removed
1 cup granulated sugar
Place the granulated sugar in a small cup. In a small bowl mix
together the egg whites and water. Dip each grape into the
egg whites and then into the sugar. Place the finished grapes on
a wire rack to dry in 1 to 2 hours.
When dried, gently place grapes in four fluted, champagne glasses, 12
grapes per glass. Shortly before the stroke of midnight, hand out
the glasses and instruct the guest to consume 1 grape at each chiming
of the clock to ensure good fortune in the new year.
© 2009, Kathy Hunt. Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.