By Murray Schulman
Happy New year to all my awesome readers. The start of the new year brings with it the possibility of better things to come. New confidence, new opportunities to meet our goals and to be that person who demonstrates that one small thing can snowball into a much larger positive influence and impact in our widest circle.
Let me share one funny but poignant story of a personal experience from my past. It was about 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day around 1980. I had just finished a 12-hour shift working in the kitchens feeding the New Year’s Eve crowds at Resorts in Atlantic City. It was a brutal day of high pressure and nonstop action. I was exhausted and looking ragged and rough as I pulled on my heavy winter coat and my hat. I headed out to the shuttle stop to wait for my ride to our parking area. There was no one else around, it was cold, I was tired and feeling low with little spirit left. I remember taking off my hat and rubbing my face and forehead to try to stay somewhat alert. In that moment, an older gentleman and his wife were all bundled up with her firmly clasping his arm as they walked side by side. They saw me standing there with my hat in my hand. I glanced up but I was not paying much attention to them. Suddenly, the gentleman reached for my hat. He placed something inside and both he and his wife smiled and wished me a Happy New Year. I nodded and mumbled a grunt that passed for an acknowledgement of their greeting. The couple went on their way, and I looked down at my hat. Inside was a $10 bill. Initially, I did not know what to think. Did I look like a homeless person, did I give the impression that I was needy? I had just gotten off work. Was this the image that I was projecting? Those thoughts were all about me. A moment later, I stopped, and a smile began to form. In that moment, I realized that that simple act had nothing whatsoever to do with me. It was all about that older couple on New Year’s morning sharing a moment of genuine kindness. It was a small gift in a moment of time that had a profound influence on me that I have carried in my thoughts for some fifty years. Even as I write this, I am smiling as I think about the warmth and kindness of that couple on that cold night.
I wanted to share this story because it reminds me of the traditions and superstitions surrounding the welcoming of the new year. Some of these traditions, particularly in Italy, date back to Roman times or earlier. The common denominator in all these traditions is the desire for good fortune in the year to come. For thousands of years, this moment when the new year arrives, deep down, people turn their thoughts to becoming better that they were during the year that is ending. Wouldn’t it be a better world if we could somehow keep that positivity in the forefront of our thoughts all through the year?
How many of you have noticed that the celebrations taking place from New Year’s Eve into New Year’s Day tend to be noisy? Think about it. Even if you stay at home, you are watching and listening to the noise of the crowds in Times Square. Or you listen to the sounds of fireworks displays or firecrackers from the neighbor’s back yard. Noise has always been part of the New Year’s traditions. In Italy, people tossed old pots, pans, and crockery out the windows or off their balconies to crash loudly on the sidewalk or in the piazza. That noisy clatter was intended to scare off the spirit of the old year allowing the New Year’s spirits in. Another tradition dating back to ancient Italy and continues today is the somewhat scandalous tradition of wearing red underwear during the New Year’s celebration. On the surface, this seems like a small thing. Red is the symbol of fertility and prosperity along with good luck as we welcome in the year. The “gotcha” in this tradition is that any red underwear won’t do. It won’t even work if you buy new red underwear for the occasion. The red underwear that is worn by both men and women must be given as a gift from someone else to you. I suppose if you give someone red underwear as a gift, if you don’t end up with a black eye, the chances are pretty good that you will get lucky at least for that day. You’ll have to let me know how that works out for you.
Food, of course plays a major role in the traditions that have stood the test of time. In Italy, the themes are similar. But the presentations vary by region. This New Year’s meal may be served on Dec. 31, La Festa di San Silvestro or may be served on Jan. 1, Capodanno. In Southern Italy, Naples, Sorrento and the surrounding areas the main meal is much like a mini version of the Christmas Eve feast, this meal will include a variety of seafood with a stuffed pasta. The stuffed pasta is a symbol of a year filled with good fortune and prosperity.
Sicilians make every effort to cover all the bases. Seafood plays a key role in the meal. The pasta that rules the table is almost always lasagna. Layers of wide sheets of pasta with mounds of luxurious cheese stacked high until it oozes over the crunchy edges of this baked dish that is finished with the family’s favorite red sauce/gravy recipe. This lasagna shouts opulence, success, and the promise of a full and prosperous year.
As we move through central Italy into the Tuscan regions and north, pork and every sort of stuffed pasta grace the table at New Year’s. In this region, the pork may be presented as a stew, ragout, roasted, braised, marinated and well-seasoned. Pork as a symbol of wealth and prosperity dates to the ancient Romans. Stuffed pasta symbolizes the fullness of life. The year begins with stuffed pasta and carries the hope that the family, the business, and the community with thrive.
Northern Italy from Venice and into the most Northern regions rice or risotto replace pasta. As the rice is prepared, special care is required, and the rice will swell to the perfect texture and double in volume. As the rice swells, the hope that the new year will swell with luck and good fortune. The families will swell with peace and happiness. Often served with the risotto is a pork sausage called Cotechino. Cotechino originally was an Emilian sausage made from pork rind, lard, and spices. The sausage is eaten after cooking it for hours. It was developed to use the less valuable parts of the pig. The long cooking process gives the meat a melted consistency within a natural casing. This sausage is typical of Modena, Mantua, and Cremona. It is also found in the regions of Piedmont, Veneto and Trentino. Because the pigs in these regions are slaughtered in December, Cotechino has come to symbolize the start of the New Year.
One dish that I have saved for last is universal throughout Italy as well as among Italian-Americans. Lentils traditionally bring good luck and wealth. It is said that the more lentils that you eat at new Year’s, the more luck and wealth you will have in the New year. Like black-eyed peas in many cultures here in America, lentils for Italians are reminiscent of small gold coins minted in Rome in ancient times. This tradition has been passed down through the generations and is as popular today as it ever was.
As I write this column, I think about the role that food plays in the symbolism and traditions of the holidays now during the welcoming of the new year and throughout the years. I understand that now is the time to join a gym and change how we eat to comply with the science of losing weight. I do the same as you. But it is hard for me to accept the science that describes food simply as “fuel” for the body. It is true that food consumption must be controlled if we are to be healthier and feel better. This is important and is supported by hard cold facts. History on the other hand has shaped the traditions that remind us of our humanity. Food carries the symbols that tie to our future, our family, and our emotional wellbeing. I am not giving license to eat anything and everything whenever we feel like it. What I am saying is that food is like that story I told at the beginning of this column. If just for the moment we can share a small speck of goodness and happiness, that moment at the table with friends and family will snowball into memories that will be with us and shared for years to come. This New Year, resolve to seek out those small moments of goodness and joy. Share them through positivity and behavior. If you influence or impact even one individual, the world is one person better than it was before. May your New Year 2022 be filled with tiny gold coins that symbolize success and prosperity. May you always have the stuffed foods at your table that symbolize the fullness of life. Happy New Year from my home to yours.