Pork and Sauerkraut, Our New Year’s “Good Luck” Food
The first day of 2018 is less than a couple weeks away and many are beginning to plan their New Year’s Day menu, being sure to include their traditional “good luck” food. Have you ever wondered why we continue the tradition of “good luck” food on New Year’s?
Well, there are actually, four regional American “good luck” foods of the New Year’s. In the Midwest, it’s pork and sauerkraut, in the South it’s greens and black-eyed peas, with the Scandinavian immigrants it’s pickled herring, and with the Italian immigrants it’s lentils.
Usually this time of the year in our area, pork and sauerkraut is served at local firehouse and church dinners. Some think it’s because of the superstition but it could just be because it’s plain old comfort food. And I do mean PLAIN! Brown sugar or applesauce (in some versions) serves as the only fancy ingredient. Believe it or not, salt and pepper is as spicy as it gets. However, many say, if you’ve never had a sauerkraut juice pool in your mashed potatoes, you are missing something great.
Why is this comfort food considered good luck? There have been lots of theories about cabbage and pigs being symbols of prosperity (cabbage is green like money and pork comes from pigs, an animal “rich” with fat), but most believe it is due to the superstition. From generation to generation, eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day was just something you did, much like firing guns around midnight as a way to scare off evil spirits and those things you want to shed from the previous year.
Historians report that pork is considered a celebratory dish since “the pig roots forward”. Pigs root ahead as they eat, as opposed to the backwards scratching of chickens and turkeys and therefore is considered a symbol of progress. Many believe that this thinking helps explain why pork was eaten for good luck on New Year’s Day. But is there any other reason for this tradition besides the direction a pig roots?
Summit County has a high population of people with German heritage, as well as Hungarian, Polish and Czech ancestry. Pork is a cultural touchstone in German and Eastern European countries. Farmers who raised pigs slaughtered them in the fall, in part because of good food safety practice of butchering a large animal when it’s cold outside. Following the slaughter, families could enjoy more fresh cuts of pork than the preserved hams and sausages. Many farm families would put a glorious hunk of pork at the center of most holiday tables and of course, they just might plan ahead and reserve a choice cut of pork for New Year’s Day.
As for the sauerkraut, fall is the height of cabbage harvesting time. Farmers would shred and pickle pounds and pounds of cabbage to preserve as sauerkraut. Brined sauerkraut can take six to eight weeks to ferment. This timing is perfect for holiday consumption and our ancestors considered rich, fatty, and salty pork the perfect pairing for the tart and lean sauerkraut.
My “Hungarian” mother’s pork roast (usually a boneless pork butt cooked separately from the sauerkraut) is only one variation of our Midwestern pork and cabbage obsession. Pork-stuffed cabbage rolls, as well as kraut with chunks of kielbasa also appear at New Year’s meals. “They are a rib-sticking, savory fare for a wintery day”, not just for New Year’s.
Regardless of the reason, whether your pork and sauerkraut brings you a year of good luck or an evening of indigestion, it’s still good eating on New Year’s!