While a lot of attention is given to the festivities of New Year's Eve, where champagne and hors d'oeuvres are the stars, less attention is given to what we eat on New Year's Day. With football bowl games the primary occupation, it's likely that pizza and nachos have become default options for Americans.
But in a time before televised football, people prepared special foods on New Year's Day that were intended to usher in a year of happiness and prosperity. What's really cool about this is that many of the same foods tend to appear across cultures, and for the same weird reasons. Lentils, for instance, are often included in a January 1 meal because they are said to resemble coins. Really? They look more like the little dots that fall out of a three-hole punch. But if there's anything more fun than stretching symbolism too far, it's eating the results.
Most lucky foods for New Year's Day are meant to evoke prosperity, moving forward, or coming full circle. Round cakes have been a nod to the latter, so in that sense pizza can be seen as a reasonable substitution. Nachos are harder to fit into any of the extant New Year's Day food lore categories (unless you top your tortillas with lentils, cabbage, and herring). And remember, at least two New Year's Day no-no's are lobster (they move backwards) and chicken (they look as if they're locomoting backwards).
First off, leave a little food on your plate on New Year's Eve. This is like sweetening the pot for plenty to come in the new year.
Next, plan ahead. Many restaurants are closed on New Year's Day, so if you want to follow the tradition of some northern European cultures by eating herring on Jan. 1, and want to do that by eating the pickled seafood board at Restaurant Magnus, you'll have to order it for takeout beforehand, because Magnus isn't open.
If you want to follow the Dutch in their adoption of the doughnut as a good luck charm by getting some fresh frycakes from the Greenbush Bakery, it'll be closing around noon on Dec. 31.
Likewise, Doug's Soul Food will be open for lunch only (11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.) on Dec. 31, so pick up takeout for your New Year's Day lucky servings of black-eyed peas and collard greens. Why are these lucky? Collard greens are the color of money -- in the U.S. anyway -- and black-eyed peas, probably the most characteristic American New Year's Day good luck dish, are thought to be lucky for reasons as varied as the specious "looks like a coin" analogy, to the fact that beans plump as you cook them (symbolizing prosperity), to a legend about black-eyed peas being the only crop left to eat during the Civil War.
Chinese restaurants are often open on New Year's when others are taking a rest, so you can take your pick to pick up noodle dishes, where the longer the noodle, the better the luck (they symbolize long life). Another Asian tradition is jiaoza (dumplings or potstickers) filled with pork (a cross-cultural symbol for prosperity in the New Year) and cabbage (another cross-cultural signifier of wealth or money). A particularly good local version of jiaoza can be found at Fugu on West Gilman.
Samba Brazilian Grill will be open with its meat buffet on New Year's Day, so you can choose lots of lucky pork (tenderloin, sausages and pork ribs) and lucky legumes (black, white, or lima beans) from the salad course. Or head to the Essen Haus, which opens at 3 p.m. on Jan. 1, to partake in German takes on good luck foods -- more pork and more cabbage, this time in the form of sauerkraut.
The jury is still out as to whether fish is lucky (moves forward) or unlucky (they just might swim away with your prosperity). New Year's Day is a Friday, so if you're looking to start the year off with a fish fry, you can count on some of Madison's favorites: The Avenue Bar is open, as is the Esquire Club, starting at 4 p.m. for dinner. The Stable Tap at Quivey's Grove will be open starting at 4 p.m., serving the fish fry, "but no sandwiches," which is okay since no culture seems to see the sandwich as particularly lucky or unlucky.