In the years since I have been an adult, I have hosted a New Year’s Day open house, in the late afternoon on the first day of the new year, probably once every three or four years.
What I served at the first one, back when I was nineteen and had just moved to the small Ozarks boho Victorian arts community of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was, if memory serves, nothing more than a huge pot of really good homemade vegetable soup. This was accompanied by a table full of assorted home-baked breads (including, of course, cornbread), with various flavored butters.
Dessert? Beverages? Surely I offered those too, but I don’t recall them.
But over the years I quickly moved on to offering traditionally lucky foods, such as black-eyed peas. And of course, as I grew into being a food writer, I couldn’t resist falling, over the years, into the fascinating research rabbit-hole of good-luck foods. Of what different cultures cite as particular dishes to be eaten at the New Year to bring about positive fortune, and the rationale for its alleged good luck.
For every culture has its New Year ( a movable feast, if that culture’s calendar is lunar, as are those of most Asian countries). And most New Years-es, no matter when they fall, are loaded them with expectations of using the day to predict or seek luck and good fortune. Of wishing it for others, and ourselves. Of going after it, often in some way propitiating fate, the gods or one’s ancestors. Of courting it, by wearing particular colors, taking particular actions, and yes, eating particular foods.
I’m always fascinated by food as a window into human hopes, fears, aspirations, and customs, and exploring the traditional New Year’s dishes said to bring luck gives a good idea of what human beings equate luck with. (Money is a major contender, but by no means the only one. Health and longevity are high on the list. Sweetness, too, puts in an appearance in some iterations.
Learning about all this further shaped the menu for my New Year’s Day gatherings, of course, as did my years of entertaining professionally as an innkeeper/restaurateur at Dairy Hollow House.
At the end of this November, I thought to myself, it’s been ages since you’ve done a New Year’s Day open-house, CD. (Well, of course. Duh. Pandemic. Still.)
I thought, It’s time! I thought about it some more — this was before omicron — and I landed squarely and enthusiastically on Yeah! Let’s do it!
I am sure some of my enthusiasm was that we were several years into Covid-times and its social limitations. Like many, even most, I was feeling an aching hang-out-casually-with-people-I-like-and-love deficiency. I knew any gathering I hosted would have to be much smaller than the open-houses of my past. I knew I’d have to be clear on vaccination and masking protocol. But surely this was possible.
And, there was this: for the last several years, I have had the privilege of being part of a “we” (improbably, after 20 years of widowhood; and very fortunately, for many reasons, including not having to endure the anxious isolation of lockdown solo).
I wouldn’t be hosting; it would be we.
Mark, my dear sweetheart spouse, is even more Covid-cautious than I (he once taught a class on the mathematics of epidemiology). Beside that, as a rule, he’s less into parties and socializing than I am. So I approached him with my party-wish, with, I hope, delicacy. After a careful conversation, each of us trying sincerely to be respectful of the other’s desires and concerns, and walking through lots of what-ifs, he arrived at, let’s say, cautiously receptive.
One of my favorite aspects of throwing a party is planning it. So I figured, both for myself and him, okay, I’ll figure out ways to make it safer. I’ll be clear on vaccination and mask protocols.
I thought, Surely I can do that, along with the guest list and the menus and where I’ll lay out what on which platters, and which color napkins and table-runners I’ll use…
I thought, well, what if you and Mark leave the windows open and warn everyone to sweater-up?
I thought, what if, on the invitations, you offer timing options , so that, let’s see, if the party runs three hours, guests can pick a time-slot so we don’t have too many people at once?
Surely I could make it happen! Oh, I had a big ol’ time planning.
Until I read one particular update on Omicron and realized: NO, CD. You can’t do it. Cannot! Kiss that party good-bye.
I, and you can’t risk it. That newest strain of virus is so freaking infectious. I did not and do not want to be hosting even a mini-spreader event. Even a possible mini-spreader event.
Because putting people at risk — no matter how good the food and conversation might be, no matter how desperate all of us are to socialize — is not hospitality. Not in my book (or my books; at least my cookbooks, which are, after all, ultimately about hospitality).
Working with my crankiness and regret around cancelling the party I had been so enthusiastically planning, I remembered something that the playwright Robert Patrick told me a shocking number of years ago, back when I interviewed him for the Arkansas Times when I was in mid-20’s.
“As Picasso said,” Robert Patrick told me in the way-back, and I can’t remember the context, “if you don’t have green, then orange has got to do it.”
I I think about this often, whenever I’m called on to reinvent; which is often.
I thought out loud about all this on Facebook (hyperlinking Robert Patrick). And then I noted, “Okay, I can’t green-light the party. But my orange is, I’m going to do a recipe-rich blog post, with all the details on what I would have served.”
This is that blog.
Spicy-Smoky East-West Black-Eyed Peas
(conventional stove-top method)
Serves 6 to 8, accompanied by cornbread and a salad
1 pound dried black-eyed peas
5 cloves garlic, 3 chopped, 2 left whole
½ dried chipotle pepper, broken in half
2 large onions, 1 quartered, the other chopped
1 to 2 heaping tablespoons dark or light miso
3 tablespoons mild vegetable oil, such as canola, soy, or peanut
2 carrots, scrubbed and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1-4 red, green, or yellow bell peppers (or an assortment), chopped, optional
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
(additional water, or vegetable or chicken stock, optional)
salt, to taste
fresh-cracked black pepper, to taste
1. Rinse the black-eyed peas well and place them in large, heavy soup-pot with enough water to cover them by about three inches. Bring to a hard boil, and boil vigorously for 5 to 10 minutes. Then lower heat to a simmer, and add the two whole garlic cloves, the dried chipotle, and the quartered onion. Cover, and let peas cook for at least an hour.
2. Taste beans for tenderness. Once they are approaching softness, heat a large, heavy skillet, and add the vegetable oil. Add the chopped onion. Sauté, stirring often, for about 8 minutes. Add the carrots and continue sautéing, stirring often, for another 3 or 4 minutes. Add the celery and red pepper and sauté a few minutes longer. Finally, lower heat, add chopped garlic, and sauté 2 minutes more.
3. Check the black-eyes. Once they are fully tender (the range is 45-50 minutes to 90-120; it depends on the age of the crop of your particular bag of black-eyes), stir the vegetable sauté, with the sesame oil and miso, into the simmering, black-eyes. Fish out what’s left of the dried chipotle, especially any tough stem, and discard it, and stir the beans very well to distribute the miso and sesame oil. If you like, scoop out ¾ of a cup or so of the beans and mash them, then add them back to the pot, thickening the beans. Or, if you feel the beans are too thick, add a cup or two of water or stock. Add salt (beans need quite a bit) and pepper to taste. Turn the heat to medium, and continue simmering the beans at least one hour.
Take time to inhale the delicious cooking fragrances, even before you enjoy the even more delicious beans.
And here’s a photograph of my East-West Black-Eyed Peas, Black-Pepper Cornbread, and Collard Green Salad, as photographed by Mark Boughton.
Brazilian Style Collard Green Salad
Raw collard greens? A few brief years ago it would have hardly been comprehensible to most Americans, especially Southerners. But times have changed with the advent of kale salads. While many find the texture of kale objectionable – its curliness, if it is not cut finely enough, can get caught in the throat – this is not a problem with it the flat-leaved and more mildly flavored collards, especially given the method of slicing here: very thinly sliverered slices, almost threadlike. One bite of these sprightly green ribbons and their couldn’t-be-simpler dressing, and you’ll be a convert.
If you can’t get collards, use lacinato kale, Sometimes called dino kale, it’s flat-leaf, not curly. Another plus: unlike a salad of more tender greens, such as mesclun, this dish is happy to wait, just as good an hour or two after being made as immediately. Recipes that make it easy on the host should always factor in when planning a party dinner you yourself are making, serving, and possibly cleaning up from.
In some parts of Brazil, these greens are de rigeur with fejoiada, the the famed national bean dish packed with, as they say, “every part of the pig but the squeal” — and those parts not just fresh, nut preserved in many ways (dried, smoked), some whole, some chopped. These accompanying greens lighten this dish, much in the way we perceive coleslaw as lightening and thus necessary, with barbecue. But the salad is every bit as good with the quietly vegetarian East-West Black-eyed Peas.
Make sure your slicing knife is good and sharp: the only trick, as mentioned, is slicing the greens very, very thinly. you can do this slicing the day before, packing the ribboned greens into zip top bags and stuffing them in the refrigerator until a couple of hours before the guests are due.
Two large bunches collard greens or lacinato kale, well washed, tough stems removed
Coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 lemons, halved
- Stack the leaves of collard or kale, and roll them up tightly the long way, making a firm green cigar-shaped roll. (You may have to do this in batches). On a cutting board, with your sharpest knife, cut as thinly as possible across the greens, making thin ribbons of green. This can be done up to two days in advance, if you store the cut greens in zip-top bags and refrigerate them.
- Up to one hour before guests are due to arrive, put the greens in your largest salad bowl. Drizzle the oil over them, then salt and pepper them well, and finally, squeeze the lemons over them (if the lemons have a lot of seeds, squeeze them through a strainer directly onto the greens).
- Toss well, then rub the greens between your clean hands a bit, to slightly wilt the greens and rub this minimal dressing in a bit. That’s it!
Extra-Moist Cheese and Black Pepper Cornbread
Makes 2 8-X-8 pans
You might want to double this; most people will want at least two pieces. The batter will fill the pans only about halfway up; it’s so moist that otherwise the middle part won’t be done. This way, you get the nice moist center, but a lovely crisp-crunchy cheese topped crust.
This recipe, too, can be largely done ahead: combine the dry ingredients a night or two or three before. Leave this dry mix in a tightly covered mixing bowl. Combine the wet ingredients, and refrigerate them, again, a couple of nights before is fine, in a suitably sized container. Have the grated cheese ready, too. Then, on the day of, preheat the oven, pick up at step 4, and you’re in business.
Vegetable cooking oil spray
1 1/4 cups unbleached white flour
1 ¾ cups stoneground yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper (use a coarse grind)
2 3 cups milk
1/3 cup mild vegetable oil, such as corn, canola, or peanut
1 cup canned creamed corn
1 3/4 cup (8 ounces) grated sharp cheddar or Jack cheese, or a combination
1 tablespoon butter
Salt, for sprinkling
- Preheat oven to 400. Spray 2 8 X 8 baking pans with cooking oil, and set aside.
- Stir together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, soda, salt, and black pepper in a medium bowl.
- Break the eggs into a second medium bowl, and whisk them well. Whisk into them the milk and oil.
- Combine the wet and dry ingredients, using a whisk (batter will be thinner than the usual cornbread). Still, use as few strokes as possible. Stir in creamed corn and half the cheese, mixing just until ingredients are well combined.
- Pour the batter to the prepared pans, and top with the reserved cheese. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven, and top with the butter and a sprinkle of salt. Serve, hot, right away
And you won’t want to miss my Citrus Ring Cake (as I mentioned in the menu above, foods that are orange and gold colored are considered good augury for New Years, as are circular dishes, like a ring cake or cornbread done in a round skillet). But you will have to wait until the next post, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.
And I’m thinking of some other good things (it’s not New Years-y per se, but I love chocolate and peppermint together and I am thinking I’m going to do some kind of second dessert featuring that duo, because I didn’t get around to it during the Christmas holidays)…
The reason some recipes — the desserts, maybe another iteration of greens, plus a couple of cornbreads — will be appear in upcoming posts because I’ve got to stop writing and start prepping.
Didn’t I just say I had given up on hosting the party on New Years Day? Yes, but… you’ll remember, I said that on Facebook.
Which is, of course, interactive (one of the reasons it is so flipping addictive).
On that post I wrote, mourning the end of my party, I explained that I was going to do this post instead. “That way everyone can stay home safe and sound (if slightly bummed because this is STILL going on and we’re all getting kind of bored and restless with it — forgetting that we are among the lucky-to-be-alive ones, unlike 800,000 of our fellow Americans)… but we can be together in a way. We’ll still sort of be sharing time and food together. So. What say you?”
My Facebookie pals said a lot. Ellen, and Linda, and Phyllis, and quite a few others cheered me on. Stephanie, who had just canceled a solstice party, commiserated and co-grieved. But it was Suzanne Hughes who gave me the idea you’re about to, um, benefit from:
“Well considered, friend. Even though the ultimate answer and decision you made is not what you had wanted or envisioned, the decisiveness with which your NO resounded surely convicted you that it was the correct decision for you and Mark. A decision you can live with. Truly – live with.
“I did find myself wondering as I read (not that I could do this myself since I’m a woefully distinct case of technical illiteracy ) if you could make your dishes and do a New Year’s Day live event – or do a zoom presentation where you commune face to face with your guests… perhaps this party called to you over and over because your spirit needs the comfort of old friends and laughter familiar and dear to your heart. I would urge you to set up something that feeds you as your party would have. I LOVE that you’re going to post your recipes, since I (we) will benefit from those! I just would love to know your soul is being cared for as you have touched and cared for ours…”
And so… I (and Mark, and my tech pal and “dragon flight navigator” and sidekick Sweetie Berry, plus her sidekick and party online man / my writing student Curtis Hannah) … well, we all said…
So. You want to come to our New Year’s Day party after all? At our home? You’re invited! I expect it will be a blast, and a little goofy (because it was decided on last minute and so it will have that improvisational energy). There will be music, and stories, and yes, food, at least sort of. Plus music, from more old and dear-to-me friends — Starr Mitchell, George West, Bill Haymes (who warned me that he’s “gone feral” during Covid times… I think that means he grew a beard). You’ll meet us. You’ll meet our cat. I will get to maybe wear the multi-colored vintage jacket I bought back in November when we actually thought we’d get to go to parties.
Your invitation follows. Now isn’t that worth waiting for the Orange Ring Cake?
Please RSVP by registering to get the Zoom link. That’s it! Oh yeah, don’t be silly, of course it’s free. Jump in and join us!