Take cotechino con lenticchie, or lentils and sausage, for instance. This Italian – or more specifically, Tuscan – tradition has its roots in the belief that lentils resemble lira coins and a nice fat pork sausage is analogous to a nice fat wallet. Remember, we are talking about a culture that equates tortellini with the navel of Venus, fried rice balls with little oranges, and flattened pieces of pasta with human ears.
In other parts of Italy – particularly in the Piemonte region – risotto is traditional New Year's fare, the rich, creamy abundance of small grains representing a similar abundance of wealth in the coming year.
In Roman times, honey-sesame cookies were given to guests at New Year celebrations to ensure a year of sweetness. And so in many parts of Italy, eating sweets on New Year's Day ensures a year of good fortune. Especially for your dentist!
In fact, there are common “good luck” elements in many culinary cultures. Pork, legumes, and greens are present on New Year's tables all around the world. Pork is customary because of its rich, fatty legacy symbolizing wealth. And pigs root in a forward direction, an action signifying forward movement in the upcoming year. Legumes, such as lentils, beans, and peas, are popular because they generally resemble coins. And greens …. well, the more green found on your table on New Year's Day, the more green likely to be found in your wallet in the new year.
The lentil bandwagon rolls all the way to South America where Brazilians in search of a prosperous New Year consume lentil soup or lentils and rice.
People in Germany pair pork and legumes as a means of ensuring a lucky New Year. There the sausage is usually accompanied by either lentil or split-pea soup. Sauerkraut, made from green cabbage, is also a popular first meal of the new year.
The Danish are fond of stewed kale with a little cinnamon, while pig's feet are popular in nearby Sweden.
Whole suckling pigs are roasted in many Latin countries to bring luck in the New Year.
And speaking of Latin countries, one custom there stands alone among the world's New Year's traditions; eating grapes. In Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Cuba and other Latin-influenced cultures, it is common to eat twelve grapes at midnight on New Year's Eve, one grape for each stroke of the hour.
In the American South, collard greens are a good luck staple on January 1. The greens are usually accompanied by ham hocks and black-eyed peas, especially in the coastal South where Hoppin' John is an essential New Year's Day dish. Similar to a traditional West African preparation, it consists of black-eyed peas, rice, and onions mixed with either ham hocks, fatback, or thick-sliced bacon. Some regional variations include peppers, vinegar, and the addition of different spices. Sometimes coins are inserted into individual servings or placed under bowls. Cornbread, with its golden color, is another traditional lucky food. Often Southern New Year's diners are encouraged to leave three peas on their plates to ensure luck, fortune, and romance in the coming year.
By the way, there are a few foods to avoid on New Year's Day if you wish to pursue a course of advancing good luck. Lobsters move backward and chickens scratch in a backward fashion, a direction you do not want your luck to take. Similarly, any bird that is capable of suddenly flying away, carrying your luck with it, is not to be eaten on New Year's Day.
Buon appetito e Buon Capo d'Anno!