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.
I already gave you the recipes for this brunch, right here.
But why are these dishes lucky?
lucky legumes, golden foods and not-so-mean-greens
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 on the menu, 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 … instead of cilantro, the freshening herbal green note is added by mint. Get it?)
WE ARE LIVING IN A MATERIAL WORLD… SORT OF
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.
You’ll note I gave two cornbread recipes, for a Cheese and Black Pepper Cornbread, which 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. But also love the second, 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 grease, though I do not, as the fat.
In cornbread, at least those made in a skillet, we have both roundness and gold.
long, sweet, round
But, in addition to the luck-wealth equation, good health and longevity also have their luck-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.
And so we closed 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.
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 will repeat the story I closed with on the related recipe post.
by deferring 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 emblem 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.