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New Year’s Eve

In honor of New Year’s Eve I thought we should excerpt about some NYE food and drink traditions. The piece below is from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America which I found through Oxford Reference Online. I hope you all have a fabulous time tonight (but not too fabulous) and I wish you a healthy and happy 2009!

Although champagne has become de rigueur as midnight strikes, no single food epitomizes the contemporary New Year’s holiday. The menu may be luxurious caviar at a New Year’s Eve bacchanalia or sobering hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day. Celebrations marking the inexorable march of Father Time often involve foods imbued with symbolism, such as in the Pennsylvania Dutch New Year’s tradition of sauerkraut (for wealth) and pork—the pig roots forward into the future, unlike the Christmas turkey, which buries the past by scratching backward in the dirt.

Seventeenth-century Dutch immigrants in the Hudson River valley welcomed the New Year by “opening the house” to family and friends. The custom was adapted by English colonists, who used brief, strictly choreographed, January 1 social calls for gentlemen to renew bonds or repair frayed relationships. Ladies remained at home, offering elegantly arrayed collations laden with cherry bounce, wine, hot punch, and cakes and cookies, often flavored with the Dutch signatures of caraway, coriander, cardamom, and honey. Embossed New Year’s “cakes,” from the Dutch nieuwjaarskoeken—made by pressing a cookie-like dough into carved wooden boards decorated with flora and fauna—were a New York specialty throughout the nineteenth century.

Politicians embraced—or were embraced by—the New Year’s open house. George Washington inaugurated a custom of presidential New Year’s levees in 1791. The levees, which continued until the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, were a powerful statement in the fledgling democracy: Any properly dressed person with a letter of introduction, could—without an invitation—drink punch and nibble cake with the president. The diarist Philip Hone reported in 1837 that “scamps” with muddy boots stormed the home of the New York mayor, shouting “huzzas” for the mayor and demanding refreshment. The police restored order only after the celebrants had drained the mayor’s bottles, devoured his beef and turkey, and wiped their greasy fingers on his curtains.

Heavy drinking, especially among the young and the disadvantaged, was widely reported from the late eighteenth century on, when servants and slaves pounded on doors in the middle of the night demanding New Year’s drinks. Alcohol continues to assume a prominent place in New Year’s parties, notwithstanding the efforts of nineteenth-century temperance advocates, who pointedly poured effervescent sarsaparilla, coffee, and tea.

The New York custom of open house spread westward in the nineteenth century. Although the Dutch palimpsest continued in the “cold-slaw” found in Eliza Leslie’s menus for New Year’s dinner in New Receipts for Cooking (1854), other influences shaped the holiday, particularly in the South. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries those of French and English backgrounds celebrated the twelve days of Christmas with gifts of food and festive dinners on January 1 . Antebellum plantation owners sometimes gave slaves oxen to slaughter on New Year’s Day as well as liquor for the slaves’ parties. African Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made one of the most enduring contributions to the modern holiday. Starting in the Carolinas but extending throughout the South, hoppin’ John and greens became traditional New Year’s fare, black-eyed peas bringing luck and the rice (which swelled in the cooking) and greens (like money) bringing prosperity. In the early twentieth century Japanese Americans adopted the open house tradition, serving glutinous rice dishes, soups, boiled lobsters (signifying health and happiness), and fish specially prepared to appear alive and swimming.

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