With a flip of the calendar, a fresh twelve months are beckoning. The year will be full of special feasts bringing families and ethnic communities together to honour certain days of the year. Here is a brief look at some upcoming holidays — some traditional, some religion-based, some unusual, some not even on the Western calendar, but all revolve around special foods and beverages.
January 1 — New Year’s Day. Many of us start the New Year with as much champagne as we can throw down our gullets, which immediately goes to our heads, causing us to make a plethora of unrealistic resolutions. Champagne is good at making resolutions; humans are bad at keeping them. And this is why, when you do find yourself eating solid food between gulps of champagne, you should remember to eat some of the good-luck foods of various cultures so you can tip your destiny in the right direction. Several European countries eat cooked greens (kale, chard, cabbage, collards) on New Year’s Day for the simple reason that they look like folded bills of money, symbolizing a year of financial success. Lentils, beans, and black-eyed peas are popular for a similar reason in the southern United States — they resemble coins.
February 10 — Chinese New Year. This is the most important date on the Chinese calendar, and your favourite Chinese restaurant will be serving up some special dumplings to celebrate. Dumplings are the symbolic food of this Chinese holiday because they resemble ancient Chinese silver and gold currency, so foreshadow a profitable future. The greeting for this holiday — Gung hay fat choi — means exactly that: “May you have good fortune and riches,” which is manifested through this symbolic food choice.
February 12 — Shrove Tuesday. This is the official name of the beginning of the Easter season, but it is also known as Pancake Tuesday. In Christian tradition, Lent was originally treated as a forty-day fast, but modern society has scaled it back by abstaining from only certain indulgences. Traditionally, pancakes were a practical item because they used up the taboo foods of eggs, butter and milk that shouldn’t be lingering around your kitchen during Lent to tempt you. Pancake Tuesday is one last hoorah with a favourite comfort food, knowing that the upcoming self-denial will be challenging
March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day. This is just another excuse to drink as much alcohol as possible, preferably pints of Guinness or shots of whiskey. It usually falls within the Lenten season, and Catholic communities have traditionally been torn. Alcohol is often given up for Lent, so what a nasty trick to put this day, when Guinness tastes so good, right in a period of abstinence. But that hasn’t stopped the Irish from taking a reprieve from abstaining from any foods they may have given up to celebrate their patron saint with Irish stew, Irish soda bread, and Shamrock salad.
August 28 — La Tomatina. This interesting festival held in Bunol, Spain is a celebration of tomatoes. Many people visit Pamplona to partake in the legendary running with the bulls, but going to Bunol is less dangerous and a lot messier. I have seen pictures of La Tomatina and I can’t quite figure where the eating of tomatoes takes place, but the juice and seeds seem to be plastered all over the hordes of participants. If you love tomatoes and decide to partake in La Tomatina someday, be warned that it has also been nicknamed the World’s Biggest Food Fight. And the pictures don’t lie.
September 5 — Rosh Hashanah. This is the most important day on the Jewish calendar, celebrating the Jewish New Year, and another indication that some cultures celebrate the beginning of New Year on different calendars. This day begins a period of self-reflection and atonement for sins, and for some, it seems to make sense that reflection on sin should be done through food. Apples dipped in honey are the most symbolic food eaten during Rosh Hashanah to invoke a sweet year ahead.
October 1 — National Sake Day. For the Japanese, this is the day to celebrate the alcohol they are known for, and it coincides with the start of the Sake brewing season. Having a specific day to commemorate a single spirit is a great way to try a drink you might not typically order at a bar.
November 30 — St. Andrew’s Day. Not quite as celebrated as the better-known saint of Ireland, this day set aside for Scotland’s patron, St. Andrew, might be less in the international forefront because of the local Scottish dishes that are typically served. There’s probably a reason it hasn’t strayed far from Scotland when you have your pick of specialty dishes such as Singed Sheep’s Head or Haggis, which consists of the organs of a sheep or calf boiled in the stomach of the animal. Appetizing!
December 25 — Christmas Day. The food eaten during the Christmas season is traditional and comforting, but make sure you don’t let the most symbolic food item of Christmas overshadow the great family meals that come with this holiday. I’m referring to Christmas fruitcake. It can be good, but more often than not, it’s dry, solid as a brick, and tasty as mud. But dosed with rum and chased with a shot of eggnog, it goes down better. Alternatively, find someone who has a recipe that actually tastes good. A Twelfth Night Cake, traditionally eaten on January 5(the last day of the twelve days of Christmas), is flavoured with orange and lemon peels, made creamy with buttermilk, crunchy with pecans, and topped with a rum and orange juice glaze. That sounds much better than Aunt Gladys’s fruitcake.
We tend to overeat on these occasions because eating copious amounts of food has become a sign of festivity, so here’s hoping you indulge in as many of these holiday offerings as you can for the sake of celebration.
Darin Cook is eatdrink’s book reviewer. He occasionally gets out for a walk on the lighter side of the street.