Column #369 – December 24, 2005
Rooting Technique Is Behind
New Year’s Tradition
Soon after the leftovers from tomorrow’s Christmas dinner have been jammed into an overcrowded refrigerator, some family cooks may begin planning their menu for New Year’s Day. Granted, New Year’s Day is not as renowned for its festive dinners as Christmas is, but there are culinary traditions associated with New Year’s Day that some local families observe religiously.
“We never ate chicken of any sort on New Year’s Day,” declared Cardale native Patricia Bester Griffin of Kilmarnock, Virginia.
No chicken on New Year’s Day? Why not?
“My mother, Margaret Bester, told me, ‘If you eat chicken on New Year’s Day, you will be ‘scratching for food’ for the rest of the year,’” Patricia explained. “But if you eat pork on New Year’s Day, you will have plenty of food and be ‘fat and happy’ for the rest of the year. So we always had pork, usually with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes.”
The anti-“poultry on New Year’s Day” congregation has plenty of disciples. The late Pennsylvania Assemblyman J. W. Lane and his wife, Alice, lived at 127 Main Street in West Brownsville in the 1950s. Carmel, California resident George Staib, their grandson, was raised in West Brownsville and has many happy memories of his grandparents’ home.
“My grandmother always served ham on New Year’s Day,” George reminisced, “rather than any type of poultry. Grandmother Lane said that her mother had explained that ‘a pig roots ahead, but a chicken scratches back with its feet.’ Since everyone wants to enter the New Year moving forward, the Lanes went with the pig. Now that makes sense to me!”
“A pig roots forward, but a turkey or chicken scratches backward.” Could this really be the reason we eat pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day? According to Don Yoder, professor of folklife studies and American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, it certainly looks like this saying may be the reason we shun fowl on New Year’s Day. In an article for “The World And I Online,” Yoder placed his expert’s stamp on this version of the tradition’s origin.
“If you ask why pork and not our festive American turkey is dished up for New Year’s,” Yoder wrote, “the answer may be a symbolic one. The pig roots forward and the turkey scratches backwards.”
Yoder’s statement seems to make it official that the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) tradition of eating pork on New Year’s Day is based upon this old saying. There is another Pennsylvania Dutch custom that believes New Year’s Day is set aside for the consumption of sauerkraut. Based upon that old saying about the habits of pigs and turkeys, I can understand why pork is preferred – but how does eating sauerkraut bring good luck?
According to tradition, cabbage is a vegetable that brings good luck because cabbage leaves are regarded as a sign of prosperity – hence, the slang use of the word “cabbage” to mean money. Since sauerkraut is shredded cabbage that is salted and fermented in its own juice, it can team nicely with a pork dish to bestow a double dose of good fortune upon those who partake.
“Every self-respecting Dutchman,” noted Don Yoder in describing a New Year’s Day meal, “sits down for dinner that day before a huge Schissel of sauerkraut and pork, mounded with big puffy dumplings like cumulus clouds bobbing in the copious juice and served up in style with mashed potatoes, homemade applesauce, and other side dish specialties.”
Many Brownsville area natives still observe this Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, no matter where they may live now --- even folks with some very un-German-sounding names.
“On New Year’s Day,” observed Bull Run Road native Bill Johnson of Olean, New York, “we always had pork and sauerkraut with white mashed potatoes and homemade dumplings.”
“When I was a child,” echoed Grindstone-raised Bob Simpson of Vacaville, California, “my mother, Anna Margaret Sova Simpson, celebrated New Year’s Day with a pork roast, mashed potatoes, and sometimes sauerkraut.
“Another meal she often served on New Year’s,” Bob continued, “was called ‘Pittsburgh Treasure.’ It consisted of baked pork chops buried under a mound of rice, usually surrounded by vegetables such as peas and carrots.”
“Sauerkraut and pork was supposed to bring you good luck,” added another German-for-a-day, J. P. McAndrews of Needles, California. His mother, Lena Spiker McAndrews, always served that dish on New Year’s Day in their West Brownsville home.
“My dad, Martin Hosler,” noted Water Street native Chuck Hosler of Willoughby, Ohio, “told me that our family’s custom of eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day was handed down to him from his ancestors.”
So it seems the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) tradition of eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day has been adopted by families of many nationalities. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is popular with everyone who has tried it.
Laura Moorhouse Williams of York, Pennsylvania, lives in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Unfortunately, that hasn’t made her any fonder of sauerkraut.
“When I was eleven,” Laura revealed, “my parents, Brownsville natives Russ and Lynne Kline Moorhouse, served sauerkraut on New Year’s Day. I didn’t like the stuff, but I choked it down.”
And did little Laura’s courageous deed guarantee a run of good luck for the New Year?
“Within a month, I broke my left arm,” Laura lamented, “and I am left-handed. I spent six weeks in a cast having my mother cut my food, wash my hair, and do my homework for me. I was embarrassed. I certainly didn’t feel lucky.”
Does she blame her tradition-bound parents for her year of misfortune?
“I blame the sauerkraut,” says Laura, graciously letting Mom and Dad off the hook, “and I still hate it today!”
In defense of Laura’s parents, Russ and Lynne’s observance of the pork and sauerkraut tradition was bequeathed to them by earlier generations of their family. Russ Moorhouse explained, “Since my mother Kathryn was Pennsylvania German (Dutch), it was a tradition to have pork roast, usually with sauerkraut and potatoes, for New Year’s Day. My wife Lynne and I haven’t been 100% faithful in carrying on the tradition, but in the forty-one years we have been married, the majority of the time, including this year, we have pork and sauerkraut.”
And Laura will pass on the sauerkraut this year, thank you very much.
Now, what if you are truly interested in doing whatever it takes to secure a spate of good fortune in 2006, but the thought of eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day isn’t making your salivary glands jump for joy? Is there any culinary alternative that can still bring good fortune for the coming year?
Certainly! Here’s one you may find to be an attractive alternative. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes coming full circle and completing a year's cycle. For that reason, the Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year’s Day will bring good fortune.
Now that would be a difficult decision. What to eat to secure a year of good luck? A couple of forkfuls of sauerkraut? Or two hot glazed Krispy Kremes?
The Pennsylvania Dutch are not the only folks whose traditions dictate the foods to be eaten on New Year’s Day. In the southern United States, many folks celebrate the arrival of the new year by eating black-eyed peas with ham. Black-eyed peas and other legumes have been considered good luck in many cultures -- and as for the ham, we’ve already learned what is so forward-looking about a pig.
“Eat peas on New Year’s Day to have plenty of everything for the rest of the year” goes an old saying. On the evening before the new year dawns, the serving of a traditional southern New Year’s Eve dish called ‘Hoppin’ John’ – black-eyed peas and ham or ham hocks – is thought to bring good luck.
Dear reader, if you would like to cover all the bases to lasso some good luck for 2006, why not serve ‘Hoppin’ John’ on New Year’s Eve and sauerkraut and pork on New Year’s Day? If you’d like to give it a whirl, here is a recipe for ‘Hoppin’ John’ from fabulousfoods.com that you might want to try.
lb. dried black eyed peas
1/2 lb. salt pork, cubed
1/2 lb. cooked ham, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 ham bone
1/4 tsp. (more to taste) crushed red pepper
pepper to taste
3 C cooked rice
Rinse peas and pick over, removing any small stones or foreign particles. Cover with cold water in a large pot, bring to a boil for a minute, remove from heat, cover, and let sit for one hour. In a large skillet, sauté the salt pork to render fat, add onion and garlic, and cook about 5-6 minutes until onion is soft. Add the onion mixture along with the ham bone and seasonings to the pot with the peas. Add enough water to cover the ingredients and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for 1 to 1 ½ hours, or until the black eyed peas are tender but not mushy. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve over hot cooked rice. Serves 8.
Good luck in eating your way to a prosperous 2006! In next week’s final column of 2005, I will describe other New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve traditions that my readers have shared with me – customs that do not involve eating anything at all.
To all of my readers, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a safe and bountiful holiday season.
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