Let’s start the new year on good footing, yes? For centuries we’ve found fortune and favor in the foods we eat, interpreting shapes, and colors to portend success and harmony. Many countries, and indeed, cities, have their own traditions and today I will investigate three of my favorite.
To begin, we travel to the American South. Collard greens are eaten here to represent piles of dollar bills, their dark green leaves piled on top of each other and stewed in a pot are supposed to bring financial flourishing in the new year.
Moving across the ocean to Europe, I make my first stop in Germany. Here the noble pig is revered as a symbol of progress and good luck. You see, as a pig eats, it roots forward, pushing its snout into the dirt in search of delectable morsels. It does not scratch backwards as a chicken or a turkey does when pecking away at food on the ground. In this way pigs are interpreted to be an animal that looks forward to the future, instead of one that repeats past mistakes.
While some countries traditionally serve a roasted pork dish on their New Year’s table, in Germany it has become the tradition to serve Glucksschwein, lucky pigs. These treats are made from marzipan (almond paste) and sometimes also have a four leaf clover or mushroom sculpted into the confection as well (both are also symbols of luck in Germany). Pigs have such a longstanding connection to luck in Germany that even the German language reflects their presence. In a deck of playing cards the ace is knows as die Sau, the sow. One might say Ich habe Schwein gehabt which roughly translates to I’ve had a pig but means colloquially I’ve been lucky.
But now it is time to turn to the fishier side of things and investigate a food tradition that appears in a number of countries. Herring! These silvery fish are said to bring fortune to a household because their reflective scales represent silver coins. But more than that, they are historically an important part of the economy in sea-faring towns. Herring were traded and consumed heavily in the 17th century. Herring, unlike many other species of fish, have unpredictable migratory patterns. One year the sea might be thick with their schools, but the next year you could find the water empty of their presence. It is this unpredictability that has led to herring being interpreted as a bringer of divine messages. One might eat herring at the New Year not only as a symbol of wealth but also as a prayer, a wish that the coming season might have oceans full of herring for fishing.
Eaten in Germany, Poland, and across Scandinavia, these fish are usually preserved and served in either brine or cream. Here’s how you make picked herring:
First, consider the fish you‘re buying. It will either be fresh, or pre-salted. If it’s fresh herring, you will need to brine it overnight. Brining the fish does more than add flavor, it has an important chemistry function as well. Salt draws liquid out of the flesh and helps keep the fish firm once it is packed into jars for a long stay. If you don’t use any salt, the fish will turn mushy in a matter of weeks.
So, if your fish is fresh, brine it overnight. If, however, your fish is salted or pre-brined, then soak it in water overnight to draw out some of the excess salt (it will have been preserved in a heady amount of salt for transportation). The next steps are easy!
Bring to boil a simple solution of vinegar, wine, and pickling spices. In this case I used white wine, white wine vinegar, mustard seed, coriander seed, and black peppercorns. Once that solution is cool, add the fish to a jar with some red onion, dill, and lemon slices, then pour the liquid until it covers the fish. Screw on a top, put it in your refrigerator and allow it to marinate for at least 24 hours before serving. It will keep for up to one month in the fridge.