All About America explores American culture, politics, trends, history, ideals and places of interest.
Frederick Opie grew up in the northeastern United States, but every New Year’s Day his family consumed a Southern food staple – black-eyed peas and rice.
“We call it Hoppin’ John. It was just a given that you're going to have that, and I grew up in the Hudson Valley in New York,” says Opie, a professor of history at Babson University in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “I never grew up in the South at all, but both my grandparents did, and that was the tradition that they brought with them.”
New Year’s Day meal traditions center around foods that are believed to bring good luck. For many in the southern U.S., that means beans and rice, collard greens, and sometimes cornbread, its bright yellow color representing gold.
Some scholars believe these dishes came from enslaved Black people and spread to everyone in the South.
“The rice and beans, they represent bringing prosperity into the house for the new year,” says Opie. “Rice, in many societies, says to people prosperity, not only in terms of money, but also children. Many of us have got our roots in agricultural society, so having many children is a sign of prosperity, but also… the greens represent dollars.”
Some Americans have adopted a European tradition that calls for eating 12 grapes – one for each month of the year – at the stroke of midnight.
“You have to eat them all within the first minute of the new year. So, there’s this idea of storing up on luck very quickly,” says Megan Elias, director of food studies programs at Boston University. “It's a little difficult to do, having tried it. But it's fun, right? So, all of these things are supposed to make you feel happy, are supposed to make you feel like there's something special going on.”
Americans celebrate different New Year’s Days. For example, there are very distinct foods related to the Chinese or Asian New Year.
“Round things are seen to be lucky, so dumplings. Citrus is thought of as popular. Long noodles for a long life, so lo mein noodles. There are rice cakes, sweet rice balls, anything that's round is symbolic,” says Amy Bentley, a food historian at New York University. “There's also a Persian new year and Jewish new year and those follow different days, according to different calendars. And they each have their signature New Year's foods.”
Traditions like New Year’s foods offer important social, cultural, historical and religious benefits, according to Bentley.
“They serve a useful purpose to bind us together as a culture, to help us understand where we've come from,” Bentley says. “Family occasions, social occasions, holidays, these get-togethers are very important to maintain societal ties, familial ties, to provide a break from the mundane.”
Opie, Bentley and Elias are all examples of how regional New Year’s food traditions can spread beyond the South. Bentley was traveling in Tennessee one New Year’s Day, when she got her first exposure to Southern food related to the new year.
“That's a tradition that was so compelling to me,” Bentley says. “And so, I often will cook black-eyed peas and rice and collard greens for New Year's Day that recall that time when I was in Tennessee.”
Elias wed into the tradition.
“I married someone from the South,” Elias says, “so I get my Hoppin’ John ready, and my cornbread and greens and champagne, my favorite European tradition for celebrating New Year’s.”