New Year's Eats

New Year's Eats

A Champagne toast is the commonly accepted way to ring in a new year, but we're more interested in what there is to eat. Celebratory dining on December 31st and January 1st is different almost everywhere you go, ranging from Japanese mochi (rice cake)—a simple snack enjoyed in Hawaii—to the flabbergasting New Year's Eve all-you-can-eat banquet and gospel concert south of Indianapolis at the largest cafeteria on earth, Jonathan Byrd's. Tradition minded Greek and Turkish families include pomegranates on the New Year's menu because they symbolize fertility. Other cultures focus on fish because they travel in large schools, thus heralding a year of plenty.

Long Noodles, Longer Life

Those of Asian heritage might pay respect to their culture by eating long noodles on the first day of the year, taking care not to let them tear, as their length foretells longevity. After fireworks on December 31st, traditional Italians celebrate the Feast of San Silvestro, the menu for which features lentils (which represent prosperity, because they look like itty-bitty coins) and luscious cotecchino sausage to invite fat times ahead. New York's great Italian restaurant Babbo makes extraordinary cotecchino from fresh pork, and suggests it as one of the multiple kinds of meat on a plate of bollito misto (boiled dinner)—a New Year's feast if ever there was one.

An Adage About Cabbage

The old German belief that eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Eve will ensure a bountiful future comes into play when everyone at the table wishes one another as much good fortune as there are shreds of cabbage in the pot. Families around the country continue the custom, but it's especially common in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Our favorite version is in Milwaukee, at the venerable Karl Ratzsch's, where you can ease your knife into a dressing-stuffed pork chop sided by applesauce, spaetzle dumplings and the kitchen's magnificent kraut.

People in the Netherlands welcome the New Year by eating oliebollen, sugar-dusted fritters filled with apples and raisins. In the small town of Pella, Iowa, known for its annual tulip festival, the Jaarsma Bakery celebrates tulip week at the beginning of May by making oliebollen and "Dutch letters," which are buttery, S-shaped pastries filled with almond paste.

If you're looking for a lucky year in the American South, especially in the Carolina low country, try hoppin' John: black-eyed peas and rice with sausage or salt pork, and cornbread on the side. Folklore says to toss in a dime and that the person whose serving contains the coin will be especially lucky. And if you add greens to the recipe, eaters can expect a year full of money. Also, for a really bright future, leave three uneaten peas on the plate—one each for romance, luck and fortune.

As for New Year's Day, nearly everyone has a favorite pick-me-up. Among the most potent are menudo, a peppery tripe and hominy stew served in the Southwest, and ya-ka-mein, a cross-cultural Asian/soul food concoction of spaghetti in spicy broth topped with shredded beef, green onion and half a hard-boiled egg. Around New Orleans, ya-ka-mein is known as Old Sober.

New Year's Recipes

Southern Black-Eyed PeasSouthern Black-Eyed Peas
I find pork the secret to a good black-eyed pea recipe. A double dose of ham for flavor and slow and gentle cooking creates this perfect side dish.
—Doty Emory, Jasper, Georgia

Sunday Supper SandwichesSunday Supper Sandwiches
Start this hearty dish in the oven and then ignore it while you focus on your other New Year's preparations. This delish dish can be prepared in a 4-quart slow cooker as well. Simply cover and cook on low for 8-10 hours or until meat is tender.
—Libby Walpt, Chicago

Dutch LettersDutch Letters
These "S"-shaped super flaky butter pastries filled with almond paste and topped with crunchy sugar are popular in both Iowa and Holland during the Christmas season. Here's a recipe that will let you make and enjoy them all year round.
—Shirley De Lange, Byron Center, Michigan

The Roadfood Guide to a Lucky New Year

  • Babbo 110 Waverly place, New York City, 212-777-0303.
  • Jaarsma Bakery 727 Franklin St., Pella, Iowa, 641-628-2940.
  • Jonathan Byrd's Cafeteria 100 Byrd Way, Greenwood, Indiana, 317-881-8888.
  • Karl Ratzsch's 320 E. Mason St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 414-276-2720.