In keeping with what’s considered a good-luck tradition in northern Europe, Kim Wall will toast the new year with pickled herring, marinated either in wine sauce or with sour cream and chives. Wall owns Baensch Food Products Co. in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, which has produced Ma Baensch’s Marinated Herring since 1932.
The tradition has its roots in the Baltic Sea region. Herring is an abundant food source in the region, and it’s thought to bring abundance in the upcoming year for people who consume it on New Year’s Eve. The silvery color of the fish resembles coins, which adds to its aura as a harbinger of riches.
Good-luck traditions surrounding food are common throughout the globe. Consuming a whole fish on New Year’s Eve is traditional in China, at least partly because the word for “fish” sounds similar to the word for “abundance.” According to Chinese lore, serving the fish whole — its head and tail intact — assures a bountiful New Year from start to finish.
Other cultures also see fish as a good-luck food, largely for its constant forward motion. Conversely, serving lobster and crab on New Year’s Eve is thought to bring bad luck because of the crustaceans’ sideways and backward movements.
In Asian cultures, serving long noodles on New Year’s Eve is the key to longevity and prosperity. Although “long” is a relative term, the good-luck tradition requires that the noodles must never be broken during preparation, so stir-frying is the most common cooking method.
The American South has its own regional good-luck food traditions — the best known of which are collard greens and black-eyed peas. The greens symbolize dollar bills and the peas represent coins. But these foods also have historical significance.
During the Civil War, marauding Union troops took most of the food as they scoured the countryside. They left behind only collard greens and black-eyed peas as animal fodder. But those foods are rich in nutrients, and they helped Southerners survive during the four years of warfare.
Cornbread also is considered good luck. It was produced when wheat was scarce in the South. The most authentic kind uses little sugar or flour and often features “cracklings,” crispy meat bits derived from rendered lard.
Southern cooking features dishes that combine the various good-luck components. “Hoppin’ John,” a Carolina low-country dish, combines black-eyed peas and rice simmered slowly with bacon fatback, onions and salt. “Skippin’ Jenny,” as the leftovers are called, demonstrates frugality on the part of the diner, who is then sure to enjoy greater abundance in the New Year.
“Pot Likker,” the nutrient-rich juice left behind when cooking collard greens, is considered not only good luck, but also an aphrodisiac. Some recipes mix it with collard greens, cornbread and bits of pork to create a comforting and healthy soup.
In Austria, Cuba, Hungary and Spain, eating pork on New Year’s Eve is considered lucky, because pigs move ever forward, their snouts to the ground in pursuit of food. Pig-shaped cookies also are part of this tradition.
Eating fowl is considered good luck by some cultures, but bad luck by others. Birds scratch backward when searching for food, and a life lived backward does not imply progress.
Consuming round fruits — apples, oranges, grapes and others — on New Year’s Eve is considered good luck in many cultures. In the United States and Europe, eating 12 such fruits at a sitting is the best bet, while in the Philippines the lucky number is 13.
Pomegranates count as round fruits, but they take on special significance in Turkey. The fruit’s red color, which brings to mind the human heart, symbolizes life and fertility. Its medicinal qualities represent good health, and its abundance of seeds represents an abundance of wealth.
In Italy, lentils represent wealth. As the beans are cooked they grow in size, which means greater prosperity for those who consume them.
If all else fails, try eating gold-colored foods, a popular good-luck talisman that signifies increased wealth in many countries. Adding saffron to anything will do the trick. And what is a premium Champagne if not golden to the eye?