Pass the peas and pop some grapes

Eating serving of pork also thought to bring good fortunes

When it comes to allaying our anxiety about the coming year, we look to pleasurable activities as favorite harbingers of good fortune. Many revelers will reach for a flute of Champagne, or some variation on the French sparkling wine. Others will reach for a bowl of Hoppin’ John, pop grapes into their mouths or slice into a braised pork chop.

In Denmark, there will be boiled cod. In Brazil, as in Italy, chances are residents will be spooning up a lucky bowl of lentils. In Greece and Cyprus, it’s a piece of cake,¬†containing a lucky gold coin. For the Vietnamese, watermelon is a sign of luck because of its red flesh. People even dye the seeds red and serve them as delicacies.

But as midnight falls, progressing with hourly precision around the globe, we have faith that all will be well. And we, as do you, hope for a safe New Year’s Eve, and a happy 2007.

Grapes > The practice of eating 12 grapes at midnight is popular in Spain. As the story goes, at the turn of the 20th century, Spain experienced a gigantic grape harvest. This harvest was so huge that the year was marked as one of great luck. Now, with each strike of the clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve, Spaniards put grapes into their mouths. This event is broadcast on television, so everyone can do it in concert. Another grape is eaten in celebration of lucky years past and in hope of a lucky year to come. The grape-eating tradition also is followed in other countries, including Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela.

Saint Basil’s cake > To many in the South, eating greens on New Year’s means you’ll have green in your wallet all year. To the Brazilians and Italians, lentils are served because they can be considered coin-shaped. In Greece and Cyprus, however, a real coin is baked into the Saint Basil’s cake, or Vassilopita.

One legend says it started because of the notoriously high taxes levied during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Saint Basil tried to return the money to the people, but they started arguing over who was owed what. So he asked the women to bake a large cake with the coins inside. When he sliced the cake, the money found its way back to its rightful honors. Another legend says Saint Basil wanted the rich in his congregation to bake cakes with coins in them for the poor. That way, the poor wouldn’t feel like beggars but would have a little more money for their needs. Today, one coin is baked into the cake, which is cut shortly before midnight by the head of the household. Whoever finds the coin will be blessed with good fortune in the year to come.

Sticky rice and long noodles > For the Japanese, New Year’s is a major celebration that lasts three days. It’s also a time to party without a care in sight, which means that food lasting until January 3rd has to be prepared before midnight December 31. Bonenkai, or year forgetting, parties include visits to Buddhist temples where food is offered to the gods.

Each dish is made for a different purpose. Some are said to bring a good harvest, others are for fertility. Long soba noodles are popular, because it is thought that if you can suck up one without breaking it, then you will have a long life. Mochi rice, which is sticky in nature, is pressed into cakes called omochi, which are broiled or eaten in soup. Large omochi are first offered to the gods, then cut into pieces and eaten by the family because they are thought to bring luck as well as good health.

Pork > The custom of having pork on New Year’s Day can be found in cultures across the globe. For the Italians, it’s pork sausage over lentils in a dish called cotechino con lenticchie. For the Pennsylvania Dutch and many Germans, it’s pork and sauerkraut. Other Germans as well as the Polish like to eat pickled herring at midnight, but who really wants their lips on a cold fish at such a romantic moment?

Pork and pork fat both are incorporated into many Southern Hoppin’ John recipes, while Cajuns include pork in jambalaya. The Vietnamese serve a rice pudding known as banh chung or banh tet that contains mung beans and pork. And though the Chinese don’t share the same New Year’s Day as Western society, they, too, start off the year with pork in dishes including dumplings, buns (cha siu bao) and ginger pork.

Champagne > Why has Champagne at midnight become almost the worldwide symbol of welcoming in the new year? Perhaps because the wine was available mostly to Royalty in its early days, or because it survived through hard times, not to mention two World Wars. Or perhaps it is simply that it is bright, rich and effervescent. Just as we wish ourselves to be in the year to come.

Looking for a toast to offer this weekend or just any time? Here’s one from an anonymous source: “To my friends: Friends we are today, and friends we’ll always be, for I am wise to you, and you can see through me”.