They say the kitchen is the heart of the home, and there's no time during the year where that sentiment is more true than the holidays. This is the time when treasured dishes are made, champagne bottles are uncorked and friends gather to swap cookies … and stories. One of the most celebratory times is ringing in the new year: when New Year's Eve sweeps the old year away and New Year's Day brings plans for a fresh start.
The coming of a new year brings plenty of food traditions said to bring good vibes, including black-eyed peas and greens to bring wealth and cabbage for luck. But what is it about our love of food and traditions that brings about our deeply personal celebratory meals?
Gale Peters, a mom of three from Clearfield, Pa., always serves sauerkraut, pork, hot dogs and the Polish sausage, kielbasa over mashed potatoes on New Year's Day, though the cooking starts the night before. Cooking a dish like sauerkraut overnight from the old year into the new is said to bring good luck, according to Peters.
Peters also shares her secret to making the perfect mashed potatoes to serve with the slow-cooked main course: "Fluffy mashed potatoes made with lots of butter and cream cheese are a must-have."
Food historian Francine Segan says Peters's family tradition comes from a variety of beliefs about pigs and prosperity.
"Many countries like China, Italy and parts of the United States believe it's good luck to eat pork on New Year's Eve," Segan tells Yahoo Life. "Pork, because it is a rich fatty meat, has long been considered a symbol of prosperity and wealth. And, because pigs always root moving forward, they've become a symbol of the new and are associated with New Year's Eve and New Year's Day."
Long noodles, which symbolize long life and luck, are another traditional food to celebrate the new year, according to Segan, who has authored cookbooks about everything from renaissance-era recipes to meals that pair well with classic films. "There's an old Italian saying, 'Who eats macaroni on New Year's Day for the whole year won't stumble,'" says Segan. She adds that whole fish is served for Chinese New Year, which is based on the Chinese lunar calendar and occurs in January or February, as a symbol of bounty for the rest of the year.
A seafood feast is what's on the New Year's Eve menu for Stephanie Mayers, who lives in Weehawken, N.J. But, you won't find a whole fish on Mayers' table. Instead, Mayers' New Year's Eve tradition includes a decadent hot-and-cheesy crab dip, bacon-wrapped shrimp and shrimp and lobster cocktail.
"We love having indulgent crowd-pleasers for New Year's Eve," Mayers shares. "We never go out – preferring to spend the night cozy at home – but we want it to feel special still, so we sip Prosecco, exchange gifts, watch the ball drop, indulge and let the kids stay up late and get silly."
Though a smorgasbord of delectable seafood dishes may not be a traditionally lucky dish, it's always felt like a special treat to Mayers. "It's a fun theme and the dishes we make are all kind of naughty," she says, "which makes it more fun."
While Mayers has been hosting a New Year's Eve gathering in some form for 15 years, her seafood feast with close friends has been going on for the last eight. And, although Mayers' family has been experimenting with the crab dishes they serve at their party for several years, there's one dish that continues to claw its way to the top.
"The crab we have tried in various forms like crab pasta and crab cakes," she says, "but once we started making the hot cheese dip it was such a win that it had to stay." What goes into Mayers' crowd-pleasing crab dip? The secret is real jumbo lump crab meat – no imitation crab – and delicious ingredients like cream cheese, cheddar cheese and sour cream.
A true southern New Year's food tradition is cabbage and black-eyed peas, according to Ryan Helmlinger of St. Tammany Parish, La., who cooks both for the holiday, stating one is for good luck and the other for wealth.
"Another tradition is to hang one of the cabbage leaves over the front door to bring wealth into the home," he says, explaining the tradition started with his mom doing it while Helmlinger was growing up. "Not sure how well it works but I'd rather not see, so I hang one every New Year's Day when I start to cook the cabbage."
The cabbage tradition is an interesting one for Helmlinger, whose mother grew up in New Orleans. He's fairly certain her traditions were passed down from "old school New Orleans folks" who deeply believed in superstitions and old folklore. Helmlinger's wife, who grew up in New Jersey, had never heard of New Year's cabbage, but now looks forward to it every year.
After securing his lucky cabbage leaf above the door, Helmlinger adds the remaining cabbage to a pot to be served, smothered with ham, potatoes, onion, garlic, spices and chicken stock. The black-eyed peas are slow-cooked with "the trinity" — a cajun combination of onion, celery and peppers — garlic and ham then served over white rice with a side of buttered cornbread.
For Peters, whose adult children now serve her pork and sauerkraut meal in their own homes on New Year's Day, her food traditions are about a delicious meal with a side of connectedness.
"In this busy world we live in, it is good to have some things you know will always remain the same," she says. "One of these things is traditional meals with your family."
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