Photo: Kables, Flickr.
Feasting on foods that symbolize an eater's desires for the coming year is a longstanding global tradition: Jews traditionally serve honeycake on Rosh Hashanah to guarantee a sweet year, Peruvians indulge in turmeric-dusted potatoes that share a hue with the gold they hope to acquire, and Italians eat coin-shaped lentils. A Japanese belief holds that anyone who can swallow an unbroken soba noodle without chewing will enjoy a long life. (Unless, of course, the celebrant chokes on the noodle.)
But in most of the U.S., such practices were derided as quaint and misguided for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While a few first-generation immigrants observed traditions imported from their homelands -- serving pork and sauerkraut as the Germans and Swedes did or baking sweet Greek cakes -- the leading New Year's foods were the dishes of luxury: oysters, sweetbreads and sparkling wine were staples of the well-to-do holiday table throughout the 1800s.
For those who could afford it, eating generally took a backseat to drinking, thanks to an American custom dating back to George Washington's era. Antebellum families would open their houses to the public, listing visiting hours in the local papers; contemporary reports suggest young men would dash from one stranger's house to another in search of free punch and Dutch-style cookies.
"Of our New York habits in regard to the day, we of course need say nothing," the New York Daily Times harrumphed in 1856. "Its good points are that it gives occasion for again calling on a lady for whom you have had no opportunity of seeing for a long time ... its bad points are that it leads many young men to partake too freely of the 'wine so red.' "
For those tipsy Casanovas, getting lucky on New Year's probably had little to do with what was on their plates. But, further south, edible traditions that fused European habits with African foodways were beginning to emerge.
Some slaveholders -- although certainly not all -- granted enslaved African-Americans a holiday between Christmas and New Year's, often supplying them with festive foods and spirits. (Frederick Douglass was highly critical of the tactic, writing "[a]ll the license allowed appears to have no other object than to disgust the slaves with their temporary freedom, and make them glad to return to their work.")
In 1876, Della Fountain, who was enslaved in Louisiana, told an interviewer, "We always had black-eyed peas and hog jowl for New Year's dinner, for it brought good luck."
According to folklore, black-eyed peas were popular for the same reason as lentils: They looked like coins, while collards -- another southern New Year's dish -- looked like a heap of greenbacks.
Harriet Collins, a Texan whose story was included in the WPA Slave Narratives, shared a song with her interviewer (who, per the project's standards, rendered its words in dialect): "Dose black-eyed peas is lucky/ When et on New Year's Day/ You'll allus have sweet 'taters/ And possum come you way."
Many black Southerners thought of opossum as the prototypical New Year's Day food, as a short story printed in the Baltimore Afro-American in 1934 made clear. The story opens with Uncle Jeff addressing his dog. Although the paper targeted an African-American audience, it also upheld the convention of phonetic spelling.
"New Year is 'er comin' an' we ain't gwine let dat white trash 'prive us o' our New Year's dinner," Uncle Jeff says. "We gwyne cotch de fattes' 'possum what been seen in years. Tain't noffin' lak good fat 'possum wiff plenty o' yams sizzlin' en de grease, en ash cake walloped in the de grabby, en simmon beer to wash 'im down. Dey c'n keep all dey tukkeys en oyster stuffin', en shampane wine, en poun; cakes."
Then again, Northerners may have liked the idea of Southerners eating possums more than Southerners actually liked eating them. The Northern press became briefly fascinated with possum eating after president-elect Taft was served possum at a Georgia banquet in 1909. After declaring the marsupial meat "the finest thing I have tasted in weeks," his succeeding Southern hosts scrambled to prepare possum for their honored guest, and the New York Times predicted, "within a few weeks, 'possum and taters' will be just as common in New York as in Coweta County, Georgia."
Ten months after he first tasted possum, while aboard a Mississippi River steamboat, Taft was served opossum and sweet potatoes while a band played "Carve That Possum, Carve Him to the Heart." The New York Times observed, "Although enjoying the novelty of the dish, Mr. Taft admitted to friends that he does not altogether 'hanker after it.' "
It was only after Northerners' condescending attitudes toward Southerners subsided that the vernacular tradition of having collards, hog jowl and hoppin' john on New Year's began to enter the mainstream. In 1971, the Times followed a North Carolina-born Transit Authority dispatcher on his holiday errand to Andy's Meat Market in Harlem, where he bought pigs' tails, pigs' feet, chitterlings, collards and cowpeas.
"Little-known outside black communities, the meal has long been a tradition among blacks in the rural South," the Times reported, adding that the burgeoning black pride movement meant more African-Americans were upholding their "soul food" traditions. The paper neglected to note that a great many white Southerners ate the same way on New Year's Day.
A decade later, the Times' Florence Fabricant endorsed the concept of good-luck foods for New Year's, running a hoppin' john recipe and writing, "Given the current economic and international situations, the usual luxury splurge seems inappropriate. It's time to consider simpler fare that just might help things along in 1980."
That's good advice now too -- which may be why so many supermarkets last year nearly ran out of black-eyed peas.