Hearth to Hearth: Good Luck and a Happy New Year (in Food) – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – January 2004
By Alice Ross
Luck hinges on what you believe, what you want, what is uncertain. From time immemorial, and regardless of which culture’s calendar was used, New Year’s Day has always been the time when people looked ahead and hoped for the luck that brought prosperity. The symbols of luck have survived their ancient origins and are fascinating to trace. Those connected with foods tend to have obvious connections to fertility, health, abundance, and survival, although this does not always seem the case. Tracking these symbolisms is a wonderful quest into folklore and legend, and one that may bring us to unexpected places.
My adventure began with marzipan. One December 1 was doing a holiday program for German language students (a hands-on, food history program, of course). Some of my research took me to a nearby German specialty food shop, and there I found marzipan of all kinds – in bars, chocolate covered, shaped into wonderful little colored fruits and potatoes, and (perhaps most surprisingly) numerous adorable little pink pigs. The storekeeper knew that the pig was a German icon for good luck and was used not only at Christmas time, but also for New Year’s Day and birthdays (all of which mark the beginning of some kind of new year). This required a stretch. American images of pigs are not usually adorable, but rather bring up thoughts of pig sties, eating like a pig, piggy eyes, the dietary prohibitions of Judaism and Islam, none of which are connected to luck. Curious.
Some months later I found myself in St. Louis, Missouri, a town on the Mississippi with a substantial history of German settlement. As part of an informal tour of the city, I was taken to a landmark candy shop (German), famous for its molded Easter chocolates. And what an array! But among the decorated bunnies and eggs there was a large, handsome and friendly-looking pig, smiling away. And there I heard the same story about pigs and good wishes.
The next clue came accidentally in a search of 19th-century greeting cards, particularly those sent on holidays, and there too were the pink pigs. Once more they were motifs on Christmas, New Year, and birthday cards! And although many were used on German cards, the motif also appeared on turn-of-the-century cards from Belgium, England, Wales, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, Latvia, a widespread beyond-borders symbolism.
Now arose a certain urgency to get to the bottom of all this. A bit of digging turned up information about pigs as fertility symbols in many pre-Judeo-Christian cultures. And why not? Pork products have been relished by most people of the world. Pigs are not hard to raise (assuming the climate is not too hot), and can produce several litters a year. In certain cultures one’s wealth is still counted in pigs. The good luck connection begins to make sense.
The greeting cards opened a new line of questioning. Pig images were often accompanied by other good-luck symbols, most of them not edible: four leaf clovers (which may relate to the Christian cross in Irish history), horseshoes (have not found the origin of this one yet), chimney sweeps (?), and money (no explanation needed here). But one particularly common and dramatic image, in a way food-related, is a unique mushroom characterized by a bright red cap (sometimes yellow) dotted in white “warts” atop a bulbous stem. This is, without a doubt, the poisonous and dangerous amanita muscari, commonly called Fly Agaric. What possible connection could there be between luck and a deadly mushroom?
Again, folklore offered a link. It appears that Amanita muscaria, commonly called “deadly” in our part of the world, is probably humanity’s oldest entheogen, or connection to the gods. During its long history it has been used to induce visions in mystic and magical practices, some of them dating back 4,000 years. These psychedelic properties were applied in our millennium by Siberian shamans, among others, who apparently ingested small amounts to bring on their trances. Illustrators have used them in children’s books – the Alice in Wonderland mushrooms, for example, perhaps known to author and sometime drug user Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) himself.
And this brings up the age-old question of how early people learned to distinguish the poisonous foods from the safe ones (for example, that the stems of rhubarb are safe but not the leaves). You will ask how it could be that so many people used Amanita if it was poisonous, and how that large populations abroad consider it edible and choice, to use mycologists’ parlance. Note that in no way do I recommend its use without special training, but I am told that other cultures have learned to manage it. And thus another unanswered question: is this another example of the anthropological theory that the foods that are most taboo are those that are ambiguous, something between poison and safe, or between the categorized definitions of kosher and non-kosher (the pig, with cloven hoof but no cud).
Spilling the beans
A short survey of good luck and food cannot leave out the little figures sometimes baked into New Year and Twelfth Night cakes. The age-old custom originated with small edible beans or peas; only one or two were hidden in the batter, and when the cake was ultimately sliced up and served, the lucky one who got it was then accorded special privilege and obligation. Sometimes this meant directing the carousing – “Lord of Misrule,” and sometimes it required the recipient to be responsible for making the next year’s party.
The following recipe for “Gateau de Roi, Twelfth Night or Kings Cake” is adapted from The Picayune Cookbook, 1901, New Orleans. The original described both its cultural origins and customary usages, and the recipe was recorded in the early kind of notation in which the suggested ingredient amounts are understood to be approximations. Anyone who has tried yeast baking will understand that a deal of this is flexible, that personal preference and experience work successfully with what you have at hand.
2 pounds all purpose flour [about 8 or 9 cups]
1 cup sugar
1 pound butter
1/2 ounce fresh yeast, or one packet of dry yeast
1 tablespoon salt
milk or water enough to make a suitable dough candies to decorate
Place 11/2 pounds of the flour in a large bowl. Make a hole in the center of the yeast, dissolved in a little warm water. Add milk or tepid water to make the dough, using milk if you want it to be very rich and delicate. Knead and mix the flour with one hand, while adding the milk or water with the other. Make a dough that is neither too stiff nor too soft [sticky], and when perfectly smooth set the dough to rise in a moderately warm place, covered with a cloth. Let the dough rise for 5 or 6 hours, and when doubled in bulk, add the remaining half pound of flour, into which you will have sifted the salt. Add 6 eggs well beaten with the sugar and butter, and mix all together, adding more eggs if the dough is a little stiff. Then knead the dough briefly, cover and let rise again for an hour. Work again lightly, then form into a great ring, leaving a hole in the center [or make more than one cake of smaller sizes]. Place in a buttered baking pan, cover and rise an hour longer. Brush lightly with beaten egg. Set in a 350 degree oven and bake until it tests done, the time depending on the size of the cake (11/2 hours for a large one, half an hour if very small). Decorate with dragees, caramels, etc.
The English appear to have used “beans” in their cakes; the French prepared charming tiny figurines in porcelain. Either way, New Orleans continues the custom in their Kings Cakes (Twelfth Night commemorating the arrival of the Three Kings).
Sometimes the old dies slowly, and we continue these traditions without any awareness of their origins. In just this way Americans of the 1930s and 40s have hidden little tokens in birthday cakes, sometimes with promises of a specific kind of good luck. Luckily (!), I was recently given an antique “Birthday Cake Set,” a boxed collection of five sterling silver tokens. As the enclosed instructions explained, the ring connotes matrimony, the button implies bachelorhood, the thimble promises spinsterhood, the heart is for love, and the wishbone covers general good luck. It would seem that several of the guests could find their fortune in the cake.
Hoppin’ John is another southern New Year tradition, but this one has African origins. You will find it in many variations, as it is one of the signal holiday dishes of the African-American calendar. Note that the “peas” called for are legumes that resemble beans more than the green peas we are familiar with, and are available in supermarkets that carry Hispanic foods.
1 pound dried black eyed peas
1/2 pound salt pork, sliced
1 quarts of water
1 sprig of fresh thyme (or 1/2 to 1 teaspoons of dried thyme)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups uncooked long grain rice
Pick over the black eyed peas to remove anything extraneous. Soak them overnight. Fry the salt pork in a large heavy casserole to render the fat. Add the soaked black eyed peas and the water, thyme, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour, or until peas are tender. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.
Add rice, cover again, and simmer as before until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender.
Note: Some people enrich this dish with smoked ham hocks in place of salt pork. Others add flavor with bay leaves, mild onion, celery, green peppers, red pepper flakes and cayenne pepper.
The quest for good luck images in food could go on and on. Foods used as luck symbols have to be available foods. After all, if an entire culture is to use them (that is, rich and poor alike), it must be something everyone is familiar with, rooted in tradition, commonly grown, abundant at that season, and within the reach of everyone, if only now and then.
For example, the Chinese use noodles to wish good luck in longevity; the Irish ensure a good year with gifts of bread, salt, coins, and whiskey, and traditionally serve shortbread. Southern African Americans call in New Year luck with Hoppin’ John and hope that good fortune will be as plentiful as its grains of rice. (“Eat poor on New Year’s and eat fat the rest of the year.”) The Jewish tradition on Rosh Hashonnah (New Year) is to use honey abundantly – wishing for a sweet year.
As the traditional New Year customs fade away, I am intrigued by the idea of creating a contemporary good luck New Year food that fits these parameters. Keeping the calendar in mind and honoring the levity appropriate to the holiday, it might well be a take-out or fast-food dish, perhaps involving imported chocolate, liberally dosed in spirits, garnished with something red, white, and blue, and secretly hiding a coin.
And on that irreverent note, let me wish you great good luck and good appetite in the year to come.
Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is email@example.com. Her web site is www.aliceross.com
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