Janus, the Roman god who gave January its name, was two-faced. Not in the saying-mean-things-behind-someone’s back way: rather, he had two faces on either side of his handsome head. Thus, he could look forward, into the future, and backwards, into the past.
Notice, though, he had no face for “now”, which is — moment to moment, second by second — the only time we ever actually have. But the wisdom of the Roman gods did not much lean toward the more Buddhist-y / Eastern side of spirituality.
While Janus may not have understood the be here now thing, it cannot be denied that at its best, a really good get-together sometimes lets us slip into the blessed present. Much like lying on your back and looking up at the stars, when the chemistry is right, a celebration can be one of those times where we are not looking forward or back, not leaning towards the next thing on our to-do list, but rather relaxing into experiencing life as it is and saying, “This is good.”
Such a celebration is, in my experience, most often the opposite of show-offy. It does not aspire towards perfection, and it appears effortless. Its DNA has many strands: good people, good food, relaxed conversation, genuine connection possible, a mixture of old friends and new interesting people, potential friends. The hosts are of affable mien and genuine welcome. All these combine to make an environment that is easygoing and warm. If, as Brillat Savarin wrote in Transcendental Gastronomy, “To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being for as long as they are under our roofs,” then such an environment gives the host his or her best shot at doing so.
This is Part Two of my musings on New Year’s brunch, an occasion that, for me, has felt more relaxed and less expectation-laden than many holiday celebrations in the Thanksgiving-on line-up ( in part, ironically, because it has the relief of being the last of that long spate of parties).
And as stated earlier, there is a world-wide tradition of lucky foods to draw on. I promised, last time to tell you more about this and the rationale of this set of edible superstitions.
In Part One, we already met some of those foods in the three recipes I gave. Here’s why they’re lucky, and here’s are few more recipes.
lucky legumes, golden foods and not-so-mean-greens
The Spicy-Smoky East-West Black-Eyed Peas are part of a long tradition of lucky legumes. Beans, and pulses, in cultures from ancient Rome (lentils) to today’s American South (black-eyed peas), legumes have spelled good fortune in countless times and places. Why? Some hold that each bean represents a coin, bringing wealth. Others see the bean as a seed (which, of course, it is), reminding the eater of new life and new beginnings. Too, many beans are also round, a luck-inciting category which deserves its own rationale and has a paragraph below.
The main ingredient of the second recipe I gave last week, the Brazilian-Style Collard Green Salad’s is leafy greens, another reputedly lucky element. Greens, especially those most often cooked — collards, kale, turnip, spinach, sometimes even cabbage — are, like legumes, associated with wealth, in this case folding paper money. Although cultures other than American make this symbolic link, it’s particularly strong in the U.S. where, of course, our folding money is green. (But you’ll find one more tiny teeny tongue in cheek reference to green in the Citrus Pico de Gallo recipe below… instead of cilantro, the freshening herbal green note is added by mint… get it?)
Are you beginning to think that humanity’s views of what constitutes luck are decidedly materialistic? Well, you’d be justified: consider the bent towards golden foods. Go to a Chinese New Year’s celebration and you’ll see pyramidal stacks of oranges and pommelos (a large round yellow citrus fruit, which looks like a large grapefruit). Gold: need we say, again, wealth? In some parts of America, the gold theme is carried out in our native bread: cornbread.
Ditto, pork and wealth. Eat the one to bring on the other, so the tradition goes. Think “high on the hog” and “fat of the land” and you’ll get the connection. Often, in the American South, the pork is a ham hock or ham bone, thrown in to simmer with the beans, greens, or both. However, here I have to diverge, as, in my personal grappling with how and what to eat, meat (especially given current animal husbandry practices) cannot be said to bring luck in terms of health, individual or planetary. So, I’ve omitted any here… but if you’re otherwise inclined, well, that’s what “revise according to taste” is all about.
Last week’s cornbread recipe, for a Cheese and Black Pepper Cornbread, could certainly be said to have inclined towards fat-of-the-land. For, while it contains no bacon or lard, it is rich with butter, eggs, and cheese.
Here is a more stripped down cornbread, essence-y, intentionally on the dry side, the better to crumble into that bowl of beans. It’s traditionally Southern, and gluten-free. And you can use bacon fat, though I do not, as the fat.
Ronni’s Appalachian Cornbread ( Gluten-free)
This is my favorite Southern cornbread, and the one my friend Ronni Lundy grew up eating in Corbin, Kentucky, and to which she pledges allegiance. No sugar, no flour, amen. Ronni says, “If God had meant cornbread to have sugar in it, he’d have called it cake.”
Here we have roundness and gold.
¼ cup butter, oil or (if you insist) bacon drippings
2 cups stone-ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1½ cups buttermilk
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place butter or drippings in 10-inch cast-iron skillet, and place in heating oven to melt.
2. Combine wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls. When oven is hot, mix the two bowls with minimum stirring, then pour into the resulting batter into the sizzling hot, fatted pan.
3. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until golden-brown and crusty. Serve, hot, in wedges, either crumbled into a bowl of soup or beans, or with plenty of butter. Makes 8 thinnish wedges.
Four-Citrus Golden Pico de Gallo with Mint
Instead of the typical tomatoes, this pico uses citrus fruits – oranges, blood oranges, and pink grapefruit – to provide the juicy acidic component necessary in this dish, which is almost as much salad as it is condiment. It provides a nice, light, refreshing balance to the other foods on the plate, and, because its components are not only golden and sweet, but round, is surely lucky. I do keep the jalapeno and onion traditional in pico, but I swap out fresh mint for the cilantro. You can go ahead and swap it back, or combine the mint with cilantro; you can also add some diced yellow sweet peppers or yellow cherry tomatoes. However, around the time when you are throwing a New Year’s brunch, it is unlikely that tomatoes of any kind will be at their best… But the citruses? December-January is their moment. You might even be able to find a pomello; if so, substitute it for one of the grapefruits.
2 large, juicy navel oranges, peeled, seeded and sectioned, diced
2 grapefruits, preferably ruby red, peeled, seeded, and sectioned, as much white pith as possible removed, diced
1 large red onion, finely diced
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 green chile; jalapeno or Serrano, finely diced ( leave seeds in if you like heat; remove them if you want it milder)
leaves from one bunch fresh mint, preferably spearmint, stripped from the stem, and finely diced
1-2 limes, halved
1 to 2 teaspoons agave
pinch of sea salt
- Combine all ingredients, tossing well. Can be made up to 24 hours before serving. Serves 8 to 10 as a condiment.
long, sweet, round
But, in addition to wealth, good health and longevity also have their partisans. Consider long noodles. Now, this tradition is Chinese and only Chinese. The long noodle promises long life. Thing is, to get the luck of long life, you need to slurp those long noodles, unbroken, into your mouth. Cutting them could be dangerous to your longevity.
Sweet foods which of course symbolize a desire for a sweet year, are more common cross culturally, with some interesting variations. At the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which takes place in the fall, coincident with the harvest,honeyed foods insure a sweet year: the traditional choices are a cinnamon-spiced honey cake (try Marcy Goldman’s Majestic and Moist Honey Cake, on Epicurious; it’s the best one I know, though I choose to cut back the cinnamon a bit and make a few other minor changes) or apple slices dipped in honey. In Spain, eating one grape per chime of the clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve does likewise. In parts of Italy, a round almond-filled cake shaped like a snake is eaten, promising a sweet year, and one in which the less desirable parts of the past may be sloughed off as the snake sheds its skin.
Last, and to me best are the round foods, and the symbology behind them. Beans, the citruses, cornbread baked in a skillet, and many of the sweets, besides their other lucky qualities, are all round. Surely, circularity is his may be the most powerful symbol of all: like the circular wedding ring, roundness speaks of eternity, of the cycle of life, and how what goes around comes around.
Let us close, then, with a round sweet dessert, a Citrus Golden Ring Cake, with a citrusy glaze, different enough in feeling and flavor that it does not duplicate the Citrus Pico de Gallo. If tightly wrapped (and well hidden), it can easily be made two or three days in advance. Though it does not look fancy, and is quite easily put together, it is astonishingly delicious; I know of two people who requested annually for their birthday cake.
Photograph, left, Relish Magazine.
Citrus Golden Ring Cake
Round, for the cycles of the year and the roundness of a full life; yellow and orange because, they’re signifiers of wealth. But the inherent goodness of this rich, lemony cake, dense and moist, makes anyone who takes a bite feel lucky indeed, on the spot.
1 cup butter, softened to room temperature
1 ¾ cups sugar (plus a bit for pan)
3 eggs, at room temperature
3 cups sifted unbleached white flour (plus a bit for pan)
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
3/4 cup buttermilk (preferably cultured)
¼ cup orange juice, preferably freshly squeezed
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
- Preheat oven to 325. Spray a 10-inch tube pan or 12 cup bundt pan with oil. Combine 1 tablespoon each sugar and flour, and use it to coat the oiled pan, tapping out excess.
- In a medium bowl, using an electric beater set on high, cream together the butter until its light and fluffy, then gradually add the sugar. Continue beating until well-combined, and even lighter and fluffier. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Set aside.
- Sift into a separate bowl the sifted flour, baking soda, and salt.
- Combine the liquid ingredients, the buttermilk, orange juice, and lemon juice. Stir the flour mixture into the butter-egg mixture, alternating with the liquids, turning the mixture to low. Don’t overbeat. Stir in the citrus zests.
- Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, and let it bake for 45 to 70 minutes, or until the top is deeply golden brown, the kitchen is fragrant, and the cake tests clean.
- Let the cake cool in its pan on a rack, for 10 minutes, while you make the Buttery Citrus Icing, below. Then turn the cake out of its pan and onto a serving plate. While it’s still warm, slowly pour / spread / spoon about a third of the icing over the cake, allowing the cake to absorb as much as possible. Let cake cool completely, and spread with the remaining icing.
Buttery Citrus Icing
¼ cup butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups sifted confectioners sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon orange juice or Grand Marnier
Cream the butter and sugar together thoroughly. Add the zests and juices a tablespoon at a time.
wishing you a happy, lucky, cornucopia of a new year
I hope you’ll also find these dishes are celebratory enough to greet the dawning year and its hopes, while honoring old friends.
But will this food actually bring you good fortune?
I defer to the great mathematician/ scientist, Niels Bohr. A visitor to his country home noticed a horseshoe hanging over the door, and could not resist ribbing Bohr about this sign of superstition. “How can you, of all people, believe it will bring you luck?”
‘Of course I don’t,’ Bohr is said to have replied, ‘but I understand it brings you luck whether you believe it or not.’”
And it doesn’t hurt to eat well, or to wish for good luck. Whether or not you believe there’s any connection between the two.