Lucky, traditional foods bring hope in new year

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

CONYERS -- If you grew up in the South or have family below the Mason-Dixon line, the New Year is rung in with the smell of collard greens and black-eyed peas cooking and flavored with pork fatback.

Origins of the traditional meal have been lost to the winds of time but the custom is kept up by grandmothers and great-aunts who faithfully warn the next generation of possible bad luck if they do not keep the tradition alive.

"You wouldn't be healthy, wealthy or wise, you know, if you didn't eat the right things on that day to start the new year right," said Barbara McCarthy, a former Rockdale County commissioner and County Extension Service director. But she admitted, "We've gotten sort of risky, too, this year."

McCarthy said she never acquired a taste for collards, but for some time she and her friend Kathy Fowler tried to keep the tradition of beans, greens and cornbread on New Year's Day.

"Turnip greens was about as green as I could go," she said.

Most people grew up believing the traditional Southern New Year's Day meal would be a portent of good luck or fortune in the next 12 months. Greens represented folding money, the peas represented coins and cornbread represented gold, as one tradition states.

Mustard or turnip greens were mentioned as alternate greens among some online articles from Southern Living and About.com on the subject.

Fowler, who lives in Covington, said that the meal was the custom for her on New Year's Day growing up and something she continued with her family.

Fowler added her family had been tempted over the years to try something new, but in the end would stick with old ways.

"Sometimes we would say 'Well, we didn't get any more money this year,' and then think 'Well, if we hadn't eaten them, though, would we have had less money?'" Fowler said. "I don't know. It's one of those things you can't not do."

Another part of the tradition brings Hoppin' John to the table. It's the Southern take on the rice and beans dish traditional throughout the Caribbean. Other recipes can also be traced to Gullah communities along the Low Country of Georgia and South Carolina.

The basic recipe calls for rice, peas, onion, green peppers, vinegar and spice. Leftovers are called Skippin' Jenny, to demonstrate one's frugality and improve the chances of prosperity in the New Year, according to the What's Cooking America Web site.

"Eat poor that day, eat rich the rest of the year. Rice for riches and peas for peace," goes the saying.

McCarthy said she believes the New Year's Day tradition of the lucky meal may have been carried over by Scottish settlers in the southern Appalachian Mountains. She remembered hog jowl was also part of the tradition to flavor the greens and extend the luck, but fatback works just as well, she maintains.

And, in times gone by, the blend of European and African dishes on New Year's Day would almost always be finished off with a cobbler, preferably peach in Georgia.