New Year's Day Traditions | WYPR

New Year's Day Traditions

Jan 1, 2019

Credit T.Tseng/flickr

To anyone who is up and listening to our show today, congratulations! You've gotten the new year off to a good start.  Something that has always fascinated me are new year's traditions. With the help of Chef Jerry Pellegrino, let's see how many we can think of during these first few hours of January the First.

From the American south come quite a few traditions for our first meals of the year. Black-eyed peas, collard greens, corn bread, and pork are guaranteed to get your year off on the right foot. The old, famous dish of Hoppin' John seems to have be created just for this purpose, and is a wonderful cold weather dish.

Because New Year's Day represents a kind of closing of a circle, or the continuation of a cycle, circular ring-shaped foods are appropriate. Donuts and bagels fit the bill perfectly, and are custom-made for your first breakfast of the new year.

In the same vein are the Dutch treats called "oliebollen" which are  little balls of oily dough, deep fat fried and dusted with powdered  sugar. Sort of a European hush puppy.

Another sweet, but somewhat puzzling tradition comes from Switzerland.  They will get a bowl of thick whipped cream, and drop spoonfuls on the floor...and leave it there.  Why that invites good luck, I don't know.

Quite a few cultures talk about cakes with something special baked in them.  In Greece, a St. Basil's Cake has a coin hidden somewhere in the batter.  The person who finds the coin in their slice of cake will have good luck for the rest of the year.  This is very similar to the New Orleans King Cake tradition where a little Baby Jesus is tucked away in the cake.

In Spain, they like to eat twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight, although I think starting off your breakfast today with a dozen grapes will be just as good.  Another lucky fruit is the pomegranate, whose little jewel like seeds are seen as tiny sweet rubies.  Many cultures urge people to assemble bowls of twelve round fruits to honor the coming twelve months of the new year.

Mexicans celebrating the new year are quite likely to offer you a tamale.

These little packets of corn dough stuffed with ground meat, cheese and spices are the perfect finger food.  Couple them with a bowl of menudo soup, made from tripe and hominy, and you have a pretty good hangover cure.

A little further south, in Brazil, lentils are the go-to food for good luck.

The Japanese are big fans of soba noodles, particularly the buckwheat variety called "toshi-koshi".  Symbolizing longevity and prosperity, the noodles are eaten at midnight.  Also popular are little cakes made from pounded rice called mochi-tsuki, which are eaten as desserts.

In northern European countries, pickled herring is very popular.  Maybe the silvery color of the fist foretells wealth and good fortune.  You can serve yourself pickled herring right off the smorgasbord with cream sauce, or with stewed onions.

In France they have a much sweeter approach to new year's food:  they eat a big stack of crepes covered with sweet fruit jam.  I have a feeling that Americans' fondness for pancakes on new year's morning is very similar.  Bring on the maple syrup!

If you'd like to whip up a slightly belated new year's day treat, we've got a recipe  for classic Hoppin' John that you can try.



1 1/2 cups dried black-eyed peas
8 cups water, divided
3 teaspoons salt
1 small ham hock (or 1/4 lb. hog jowl)
5 slices of thick cut bacon (or hog jowl)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cups long-grain white rice, uncooked
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes


1. Using a large pot place the dried black-eyed peas, 6 cups of water, salt and ham hock. Cook covered over medium heat until tender, about 2-2 1/2 hours.

2.  While the peas are cooking, fry the bacon until crisp. Remove bacon, crumble and set aside, reserving the bacon grease.

3.  Sauté chopped onion in the bacon grease until softened.

4.  In a large sized sauce pan, with a tight-fitting lid, add the rice, 2 cups of liquid from the peas, 2 cups of water, the cooked black-eyed peas, sautéed onions, bacon grease, crumbled bacon and red pepper flakes.

5.  Cook covered over medium-low heat until rice is done, about 15-20 minutes. If needed add more pea liquid if rice gets too dry.

Serve hot, with collard greens and cornbread.