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The day after: Inebriation shouldn’t preclude custom of good-fortune food

by Amy Kingsley

The traditional New Year’s Eve consumption of liquor, beer, champagne and any other inebriant liquid (gelatin if you prefer brightly colored solids) rarely leaves the reveler in much position to consider the next day’s brunch plans.

Luckily, Southern New Year’s Day food traditions limit their specificity to what’s on the menu, not when you eat it. So, the repentant drinker can spend all day recovering before digging in to foods fabled to promise health, wealth and luck for the next 12 months.

Inhabitants of the American South don’t have a monopoly on New Year’s food traditions, Japanese Buddhists eat noodles for luck and Cubans eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight to represent the last 12 months. But Southerners do boast a native menu intended to shore up the ingester’s karma for the next year that includes greens, pork, corn bread and black-eyed peas.

Food usually takes the central role in celebrations welcoming the New Year. The day off represents one final time to get together with family and friends over the holidays and to indulge the last of your vices before resolving them away. Those uninterested in spending the entire day in the kitchen have some options, including visiting Lucky 32 for a special New Year’s Day menu.

‘“I believe in it, and so does my family,’” says Nancy King Quaintance, vice-president of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels of New Year’s foods’ good luck. ‘“It’s like chicken soup when you’re sick ‘— it might not help you but it sure can’t hurt you.’”

The menu is short and straightforward. Diners can choose between a country ham or pork loin entree served with Hoppin’ John, collard greens, mashed potatoes and cornbread. For those unfamiliar with the regional cuisine, Hoppin’ John is black-eyed peas cooked with ham hocks and rice believed to bring good luck for the next year. The name likely comes from a children’s game of hopping around the table for good luck before New Year’s dinner.

All the menu items are pure Americana, according to Quaintance.

‘“My grandma cooked all of these foods,’” she says.

Each menu items carries a specific talismanic property. Greens signify dollars for the next year, whereas black-eyed peas are for coins. Pork products are supposed to bring health ‘— just be sure to cook them thoroughly to prevent trichinosis ‘— and cornbread also means wealth.

Cooks who wish to take the predictive qualities to a higher level can season the collards with actual dollars and the black-eyed peas with coins. The chefs at Lucky 32 decline to introduce legal tender into their cooking repertoire.

The tradition of eating greens on New Year’s exists in many cultures, although it may be in the form of sauerkraut or kimchee. Collards are the green of choice below the Mason-Dixon, but spinach, kale or cabbage will substitute if a catastrophe or early shoppers decimate supply.

Although Lucky 32 usually offers food that is a modern take on classic American cuisine, the recipes for their New Year’s Day menu have been handed down from grandparents and great-grandparents. There are some differences between Quaintance’s childhood celebrations and what a diner will find on the menu.

‘“We have things like country ham and pork loin,’” she says. ‘“It’s not like hog jowls. That’s what you had to go eat at grandma’s.’”

Despite the disappearance of grandma’s hog jowls, other traditions have survived the generations. The recipe for collard greens the restaurant has used since the event began more than a dozen years ago comes from the grandma of a recently retired employee.

‘“You just don’t mess with Leoma’s greens,’” Quaintance says, ‘“because they’re delicious.’”

Of course, locals can find this kind of cuisine all over Greensboro, from the K&W and Hayble’s Hearth to more high-end joints like Lucky 32. The challenge for New Year’s Day dining is to find a restaurant open on the national holiday. Because Lucky 32 has offered a special menu on Jan. 1, it has become something of a tradition among regulars, Quaintance says.

Of course, there is always room to create new traditions, like soy-based pork for the vegetarian or spinach salad for a healthier greens option. Those who overdo it on New Year’s Eve might want to stick to black-eyed pea, collard green and pork soup. Whatever your tradition, be sure to spend the day in pleasant company: the next New Year’s won’t come around for another 365 days.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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