Tasty Tidbits: Celebrate with Tradition and Superstition

By Bonnie Porterfield

Two glasses of champagnePop open the champagne, and let’s celebrate some of our food traditions and superstitions surrounding the New Year.

Our friends from the South begin their New Year with black-eyed peas for good luck and prosperity, along with greens and cornbread. Superstition has it that the peas represent coins, and the greens represent paper money. The addition of cornbread brings gold!

Black-eyed pea seeds were brought to this country by the enslaved people of West Africa. Black-eyed peas were considered both a crop and a food source for livestock. During the Civil War, when Sherman marched his troops through the South, they destroyed anything that was useful to the Confederates. They did, however, ignore the black-eyed peas growing in the fields thinking they were merely fodder for livestock and unfit for humans. These leftover crops were used by the Confederate soldiers who were able to survive by eating this nourishing legume, thus elevating it to good luck status.

A dish of black-eyed peasThe tradition of eating Hoppin’ John began on January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and the newly freed slaves celebrated with this good luck dish. Hoppin’ John recipes vary, but generally include black-eyed peas, rice, and some form of pork, such as ham, pork, fatback, or bacon. Pigs are symbols of good luck, because they root forward as they forage, and rice is thought to bring abundance, because it swells when it cooks, thus adding even more abundance for the coming year to this already “good luck” dish.

Here in the Midwest, we are probably more used to seeing pork and sauerkraut in our New Year’s celebrations. It was a German custom that the Pennsylvania Dutch brought with them as they settled in this country. As the harvest season drew to a close, seasonal butchering was usually done before Christmas and New Year’s, thus a meal of roast pork was considered a celebration.

Plate of pork, sauerkraut, and dumplingAlso during this harvest time, cabbage was brined and pickled and turned into sauerkraut to be preserved for the coming winter. The combination of the sour, tangy kraut with the fatty pork was a perfect combination.  

Family and friends wished each other as much wealth and as long a life as the long strands of cabbage in the sauerkraut. Combined with the good luck attributed to the pig, this meal truly was a harbinger of all good things for the coming year.

With both the southern and German traditions including the superstition that pork symbolizes progress, that is enough for me to make sure to include one of these meals on New Year’s Day!  

Celebrations around the world include foods that represent long life, prosperity, and wealth. Asian cultures include long noodles representing long life, and lentils are traditional in many cultures symbolizing prosperity and luck due to their round shape. In fact, round foods, in general, are thought to symbolize wealth, as they resemble coins.

Yellow grapes on the vineIn Spain, grape growers who had an abundance of grapes supposedly started the tradition of eating twelve grapes while the clock strikes midnight as a way of encouraging people to buy their surplus grapes. Eating one grape at each strike of the clock represents the coming twelve months and provides good luck and prosperity for the coming year. Beware and take note, though, if you eat a sour grape, that month may be a challenge!

Folklore and superstition aside, there is hidden nutritional value to these traditions. Those black-eyed peas are loaded with fiber and protein, as well as thiamine and iron. Lean pork is a good source of thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and B6, in addition to potassium and zinc. Sauerkraut, being a fermented food, is loaded with probiotics as well as Vitamins C, K, and B6. Lentils also provide fiber and protein. So, starting off your new year with one of these meals not only brings good luck, it also brings good health!

Superstitions also tell us to stay away from some foods. Avoid beef as cattle stand still when they eat. Turkeys and chickens scratch backwards for their food, and crabs move sideways, and no one wants to stand still, go sideways, or backwards in the new year!

Before we get to the bubbly, some traditions not related to food include, if you kiss someone at midnight, you will not be lonely in the new year.  Opening doors will release negative energy and allow new positive energy to come into your home. You might also want to make lots of noise at midnight to scare away all of the evil spirits.

bayberry candles burning on a fireplaceOne herbal note here concerns burning a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. A reference in The Old Farmer’s Almanac includes this rhyme: 

“A bayberry candle

Burned to the socket

Brings food and larder

And gold to the pocket.”

When I was home from college my senior year, I burned a bayberry candle on New Year’s eve all night. Thinking back, I’m sure my mom didn’t sleep a wink worrying about me burning the house down. But, I do remember having a great second semester that year!

Before the clock strikes midnight, get your champagne flutes ready. The idea of celebrating with champagne had been reserved for royalty and the wealthy but was always aspirational for the rest of society. Gradually, this custom trickled down to the merchant and working classes, and it is now common to celebrate special occasions with a champagne toast.

Photo of Cafe Martin, 1908Here in the United States, drinking champagne at midnight can be attributed to two brothers from France who started the restaurant, Cafe Martin, in 1902, in New York City. It was “the place to be” for the wealthy, and on New Year’s Eve after 9 p.m., they served champagne only. Even the waiters got into the celebration by saving the corks and getting a “kickback” for each bottle they opened.  

So, now we find ourselves saying goodbye to 2021. We have much to celebrate and look forward to in 2022, so raise your glass and toast to a healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year!

Cheers!

Photo Credits: 1) Champagne (Pixaby); 2) Dish of black-eyed peas (B. Porterfield); 3) Pork, sauerkraut, and dumpling (C. Schmitt, Creative Commons); 4) Grapes (B. Porterfield); 5) Bayberry candles (B. Porterfield); 6) Cafe Martin, 1908 (Imgur).


Bonnie Porterfield is a forty-year Life Member of The Herb Society of America and a member of the Western Reserve Unit. She has served in many roles during that time, including two terms as Great Lakes District Delegate, Unit Chair; Co-Chair of the Western Reserve Unit’s first symposium and member of the GreenBridges™ and Library Advisory Committees. She is an avid herb gardener, reader, learner, and supporter of local efforts in re-establishing natural areas that promote native plantings.

Bayberry Candles

By Katherine K. Schlosser

The season of lights is upon us. During this darkest time of the year, we gravitate to earthly sources of light to keep things merry and bright.

Drupes2_zoomed in to see waxEarly in our history as a country, many were short on money and luxuries such as candles. Livestock numbers were as yet too low to produce the quantity of tallow needed to make candles affordable, so following the lead of Native Americans, householders turned to candlewood to provide light on winter evenings.

We know candlewood as fatwood or pine knots—the resin-impregnated heartwood of pine trees.  Pines that were cut to clear land, build homes, and provide heat for warmth and cooking left stumps in the ground. Those stumps, full of resin, hardened and became rot-resistant…and were an easy source of candlewood. Slim slivers cut from the wood burned hot and bright.

Alice Morse Earle, writing in the 1800s about life in Colonial America, quoted a statement made by Rev. Mr. Higginson in 1633:

     They are such candles as the Indians commonly use, having no other, and they are nothing else but the wood of the pine tree, cloven in two little slices, something thin, which are so full of the moysture of turpentine and pitch that they burne as cleere as a torch.

Though efficient, abundant, and readily available, candlewood produced copious amounts of smoke, along with a strong scent of turpentine, making it less desirable than more traditional candles. Those living along the coast had the advantage of another source of light: fish oil, with which they filled lamps.

It wasn’t long before enterprising New England Colonists discovered the virtues of bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), a deciduous shrub common along coastal plain areas.  The branches, leaves, and fruits are sweetly aromatic, and were used by Native Americans for a variety of medical complaints, including gum disease.20201223_103259

Here in North Carolina, southern bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) is evergreen and native to our coastal plain and the Outer Banks.  There are other species, mostly on the East Coast. Morella cerifera, wax myrtle, is native from Maryland south to Florida and westward to Texas. Morella inodora, scentless bayberry, grows from Georgia to Louisiana and south to Florida. The outlier is M. californica, California wax myrtle, reaching from southern California through Oregon and into Washington.

The dark blue berries (non-edible drupes) of these waxy species are covered with a grayish-white waxy substance. Boiled in large vats of water, the wax floats to the surface, where it is skimmed and transferred to another pot for refining. Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist writing in 1748, reported that the wax “acquires a fine and transparent green color. This tallow is dearer than common tallow, but cheaper than wax.”

The end product was somewhat brittle, but burned slowly and without smoke.  Even better, when extinguished, the candles yield a pleasant, warm aroma with the exception of M. inodora.  Kalm also reported that “in Carolina they not only make candles out of the wax of the berries, but likewise sealing-wax.”

The berries are small and the waxy coating thin, making enormous quantities necessary to make a candle—eight pounds of the berries are required to make one pound of wax. The candles were so popular that in 1687, Brookhaven, New York, passed a law to help protect the plants: gathering of the berries before September 15th of the year brought a fifteen shilling fine.  

To alleviate the problem of brittle candles, a small amount of beeswax was added before forming the candles. Bayberry was the longest burning candle of all, giving rise to the uniquely American tradition of burning bayberry candles on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.  

The bonus to these clean, attractive, long-burning candles, was the fragrance released in a whiff of smoke when extinguished. So nice, in fact, that people were tempted to periodically extinguish and re-light the candles to enjoy the scent. That might, technically, violate the luck-bringing requirements of the New Year’s Eve tradition:  

A Bayberry Candle
burned to the socket 
brings Luck to the household, 
Food to the larder 
and Gold to the pocket.

Bayberry candle by Katherine K SchlosserNot only must the candle be burned on New Year’s Eve, but must be burned through one night and into the next day/year. A contemporary ten-inch taper will burn about 5-7 hours, so lighting one at dinner should last past midnight. If you stay up to bring the New Year in, your candle will probably burn down shortly thereafter. If you retire early and hesitate to leave an unattended candle burning, a friend suggests putting  your burning candle, securely in a candle holder, into the kitchen sink with no curtains or such nearby. You will miss the fragrance as the flame dies down, but you will have good luck for the next year.

You can grow bayberry in sandy or well-drained soil, slightly on the dry side, and in full sun or part shade (determine the native habitat in your area).  The shrubs where I live grow from three to eight feet tall, and if you have both male and female plants, and do not fertilize heavily, you will have a source for making your own candles.

If you purchase your candles, make sure to get those with actual bayberry wax rather than just bayberry “scented,” and enjoy a bright and happy holiday season.

Photo Credits: 1) Morella cerifera fruits, showing waxy coating (Erin Holden) 2) Morella cerifera hedge (Erin Holden); 3) Bayberry candle (Katherine Schlosser)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the NC Unit of The Herb Society since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level.  She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen deConway Little Medal of Honor.  She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.