Of all the weird things that will happen at midnight on December 31st, imagine this: All over Spain, people will gather around the radio, each making sure they have 12 grapes on hand. The radio will broadcast live from the Plaza del Sol in Madrid, and as the plaza's clock strikes midnight, millions of Spaniards will try to eat one grape per chime for good luck.
Why? Well, that's an open question. So is the German habit of eating herring at midnight. Ditto for the Poles' preference for their midnight herring to be pickled. And heaven only knows why Venezuelans consider yellow underwear a lucky thing to wear while they're eating their dozen grapes, but they do.
Buddhist monks eat noodles at midnight. The Pennsylvania Dutch eat pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day. Danes eat boiled cod on New Year's Eve. The Dutch start the year with olie bollen, a donutlike fritter made with apples, raisins, or dried currants and dusted with powdered sugar. Well, actually, that makes perfect sense.
Koreans eat ttok-kuk, a rice cake in a thick beef broth topped with bright garnishes and green onions. The name means "adding age," and people believe if they have a bowl of this soup, they will become one year older. Koreans, you see, traditionally add one to their age on New Year's, not their birthdays.
For some traditions, there's at least a hint of reasoning or a good story. The Greeks eat vasilopita, a cake with a coin inside, to commemorate the return of their money (via a miracle of Saint Basil) from the tax-and-spend Ottoman Empire. Whoever bites into the coin gets the good luck for the new year.
Across the way in Italy, they eat cotechino con lenticchie -- pork sausage (a symbol of bounty because they're rich in fat) served over lentils (which are green and shaped like money) -- and then they throw old stuff they don't want out the window to make way for new stuff during the New Year. No doubt there's some vino involved in this particular tradition.
Unlike most of Asia, Japan celebrates the New Year (which they call shogatsu) at the same time we do, but they stretch it out over three days. They have "year-forgetting parties," eat toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles symbolizing longevity), fly kites, and play cards and badminton.
Japan's main food tradition stems from the fact that stores and restaurants close for all three days, so people have to make food ahead of time. Thus was born osechi-ryori. Ever efficient, the Japanese cook many different dishes -- sake-steamed shrimp, rolled kelp with fish, sweet black beans, teriyaki dried sardines, daikon, pickled carrot, herring roe -- and store them in lacquered boxes called jubako, which can be stacked, chilled, or frozen to last until January 4th.
Scotland -- particularly Edinburgh -- is one of the places to be on New Year's Eve. The celebration is called Hogmanay, and as many as 200,000 people gather in the town center for concerts, feasting, general partying, and, this year, a 150-person human tower.
The Scots also have a food-related tradition called first-footing, which means that the first foot to cross your door in the New Year will set the tone for the year. Custom holds that a tall, dark man is best (no doubt a custom started by women), but apparently new brides, new mothers, and anyone whose birthday is January 1st are also prized. People go around visiting each other and bringing gifts of shortbread, tea, a black bun cake, a seed cake (with caraway seeds), or a lump of coal. Yes, coal. It's cold in Scotland on New Year's Eve.
And then there's the black-eyed pea. Being people of the South, you know this: Eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day is good luck. Do you know why? Of course not. Neither does anybody else. We do it because our mothers and grandmothers tell us to.
One theory is that it's tied to the siege of Vicksburg, when people had to resort to eating "cowpeas," which, before that terrible event, folks didn't eat. So now we eat them to show solidarity, or somesuch. Other theories involve being humble ("eat poor on New Year's, eat rich the rest of the year") and the fact that black-eyed peas, if you eat them with cabbage, collard greens, kale, or some other green and if you've had enough champagne, look like little pennies next to a pile of dollars, hence good fortune for the year.
Some folks even eat 365 peas, one for each day of the year. I guess if you survive that, you can handle whatever 2006 brings. Oh, and black-eyed peas are not peas. Or beans. They're lentils.
The most traditional way -- though no one knows why -- to consume black-eyed peas is in a dish called Hoppin' John, a name of unknown origin. Some posit that the maker of the dish would say, "Hop in, John," when it was ready. Another comes from Raymond Sokolov, former food editor of The New York Times. He said the dish goes back at least as far as 1841, when it was sold in the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, by a crippled man who was known as Hoppin' John. Yet another theory is that a Caribbean dish called pois à pigeon (rice, peas, and salt pork) was pronounced "pwa-ha-pee-zhawn," which sounded to English-speakers like "hoppin' John."
All of this matters about as much as who wins the college football bowl games we'll all be watching on January 1st. Have a happy, well-fed New Year!