Ask most South Carolinians what first comes to mind with the mention of New Year’s Day, and chances are excellent that their response will focus, in some way or the other, on foods and culinary traditions. Those of a literary inclination can delve into the writings of one of the Palmetto State’s greatest scribes, Archibald Rutledge, to sample and savor this time of celebration in yesteryear. For example, his wonderful tale with the bewitching title “Fireworks in the Peafield Corner” celebrates hunting, food on the festive table, dispensation of joy producing libations, and the general manner in which the family celebrated the season.
Those were standard features of a South Carolina New Year’s a century ago, and were one to go back another century, much the same would still hold true. There would be toasts to greet the end of one year and the arrival of another, a short night’s sleep before gathering for a deer hunt or perhaps forays after waterfowl or quail, and then a sumptuous feast would wrap up the day of celebration with good cheer and bountiful optimism for the next 12 months. Indeed, such times of joy and anticipation stretch far beyond modern times into the shifting, elusive mists before recorded history.
For centuries, the arrival of the New Year has been a time for celebration, although the exact date for that occurrence has varied over centuries and according to cultures. Native Americans and, indeed, indigenous peoples around the world, along with those of preliterate times, frequently considered the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, usually Dec. 21 or 22) to be the time of a new beginning. In practical terms that makes considerable sense inasmuch as it begins the 365-day cycle from shortest day to longest and then back to shortest.
Even after literacy became moderately widespread in the higher levels of European society, New Year’s Day differed in timing from the current Jan. 1. That situation prevailed until the late 16th century, when Pope Gregory changed the calendar so it aligned more exactly with the solar cycle. The traditional Julian calendar, which had 376 days, was altered through the elimination of 11 days. In the British Isles, however, it was not until 1752 that the Gregorian calendar was adopted. Actual riots occurred in the streets of London and some other cities with protesters crying, “Give us back our 11 days.” Such was their ignorance that many believed that somehow the government was shortening their lives by 11 days.
The Julian calendar tradition, which had Christmas falling on Jan. 6 and New Year’s coming later in the month, was already well established in the American Colonies, and celebration of what came to be known as Old Christmas and Old New Year’s lingered for generations, especially in rural Southern Appalachia, well into the 20th century. Such quaint customs now belong to a world we have almost completely lost, but other aspects of celebrating the New Year remain strong. Food certainly takes priority of place, but before turning to that delectable subject, some mention of other celebratory practices seems merited.
Long before fireworks became popular, shooting guns at midnight of the incoming year was commonplace. So was another use of gunpowder involving the practice known as “anvil jumping.” This involved placing a charge of black powder in the concave base of an anvil and using a fuse to light it and send the heavy blacksmith’s tool sailing through the air. In my family, as was true of most for whom hunting was an integral part of life, we were abed long before midnight on Dec. 31, but if things went well, there would be shooting aplenty the next day as we took to the fields on a daylong rabbit hunt. The prey might vary, with deer, waterfowl, and “birds” (quail) being other popular quarries, but the practice of hunting was commonplace.
Then there was the custom of “first footing,” more observed in reminiscence than actual practice, connected with Hogmanay (a Scottish term for Dec. 31). The basic concept was that the first visitor to cross the threshold of a house after the arrival of the New Year determined the nature of what happened in the ensuing 12 months. Hopefully the first footer would be a boy or man, and if they were handsome and well-dressed, so much the better. That translated to a year of good luck.
On the other hand, a female being the first to cross the threshold was considered an ill omen. That might be considered sexist (or worse) today, but in my boyhood world, such was reality. Mind you, arriving hunters showing up for a pre-hunt breakfast on Jan. 1 were almost always the first to darken the door of our home. I would note that while they met the male part of the equation, most did not exactly pass muster when it came to being handsome or nattily attired.
When it comes to the celebratory foodstuffs associated with New Year’s Day dining, perhaps a longing look back to personal experiences in that regard, with some asides regarding how our family varied from the culinary norm, will get to the heart of the whole delectable matter of New Year’s fare. For starters, pork loomed large and was the centerpiece, so to speak, of the celebratory meal. Possibly the prominence of pork came from the fact it was long the principal meat in Southern diet. Chickens, sometimes known as “preacher bird,” were for Sundays and rare special occasions, while beef seldom figured in daily diet. On the other hand, many rural families raised hogs; the meat was readily preserved through salting, smoking, or canning, and more likely than not it was readily available come Jan. 1 thanks to the fact that hog-killing time normally came sometime in the latter half of November.
For us, backbones and ribs, as opposed tenderloin or hog jowls, was the featured dish. However, pork also figured prominently in the three other “standards” of the New Year’s table. A pone of cornbread hot from the oven was always available, and it was not just any cornbread. Instead, it would be liberally laced with cracklings (the tasty tidbits left over when lard was rendered as part of the hog-killing process).
Another dish served was what we called crowder peas, although they go by a variety of names and in fact come in kindred forms such as clay peas, field peas, zip peas, and the like. They were invariably cooked with a couple of slices of streaked meat. Precisely the same held true for the final dish of the New Year’s quartet, greens. While collard greens are the standard over much of the South, Momma always opted for turnip greens or a mixture of those and mustard greens.
Once again, they were seasoned with some thinly sliced fatback. In effect, we not only ate high on the hog; we dined low on the hog as well. Although a full 50 years and more have come and gone, in my mind’s eye, I still envision that simple yet scrumptious fare laid on the table before us as Grandpa Joe blessed the food in perfect fashion, always ending with a heartfelt: “You’uns see what’s before you. Eat hearty.”
It was a pure delight to follow his guidance, and as a first-rate trencherman, he set a sterling example on the heartiness front. Our family was also keenly aware of the symbolism linked to our New Year’s feast. Bronze-colored clay peas represented pennies, prudence, and promise of a productive year. Greens likewise evoked thoughts of prosperity, albeit in the form of “greenback dollars” rather than copper coins. Crackling cornbread reminded one of bread as the staff of life, while pork attested to the blessing of having meat you had raised, fattened, butchered, processed, and preserved. In other words, the New Year’s table represented self-sufficiency at the moment and hopes for plenty in the months that lay ahead.
Parts of the South — and certainly this holds true for South Carolina — gave prominence to other dishes. Hoppin’ John, a toothsome blend of rice and black-eyed peas, held sway on many a Lowcountry table, and often some type of wild game, perhaps a haunch of venison, delicious ducks, or simple yet supremely satisfying squirrel with sweet potatoes and gravy, took the place of pork.
No matter how one celebrated the arrival of a New Year, though, traditionally there have always been constants that surely everyone must approve and even applaud, namely: good cheer, good fortune, and a bright outlook on life. Those are bountiful blessings, and one of the fondest of many warm memories of my mother is inextricably linked to New Year’s Day. It involves reflecting on the manner in which she took an upbeat, even joyous, approach to life each Jan. 1. But what really put meat on the bones of her New Year’s culinary celebration was the follow-up, for she made every effort to see that the upbeat and uplifting spirit of that one day continued unabated for the ensuing 364 days.
New Year’s Greens
Wash a big mess of greens fresh from the garden, farmers market, or grocery store, being sure to give them multiple rinses to remove all dirt and grit. If they are overly large, it is best to remove the stems. Chop up two or three turnips in small pieces (diced is best). Place both in a large pot with plenty of water. Throw in a couple of slices of streaked meat (called fatback or side meat in some parts of the country) and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and allow to cook until greens and turnips are done. Add salt to taste. Serve piping hot and be sure to save the pot liquor. It makes for mighty fine eating when you dip a chunk of crackling cornbread in it (see below), or as my Grandpa Joe used to do, pour it in a bowl and crumble cornbread over the rich, vitamin-filled juice. Turnip greens, mustard greens, or a mixture of the two can be cooked this way, but my personal preference is for mustard greens mixed with turnip roots. Collards are, of course, the New Year’s green of choice for most South Carolinians.
Backbones and Ribs
I like backbones and ribs simply because they offer plenty of succulent meat along with the chance to enjoy marrow, but good luck (unless you butcher your own hogs or know someone who does) on obtaining this particular cut. Cheaper cuts of bone-in pork, while not quite the same, will nonetheless work just fine. Cut away larger pieces of fat (there will still be plenty when you start cooking) and place in a crockpot or slow cooker with enough water to cover with the setting on medium heat. Add salt and allow to cook, covered, for several hours. Other than maybe turning the pieces of meat once or twice and checking the moisture level, you do not need to do anything else. If you cook long enough, meat will fall off the bone and the actual bones will soften to the point you can gnaw them for marrow. Then you are in country boy heaven.
1 pint cracklings
1 quart stone-ground cornmeal
1 pint buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
Generous pinch of salt
Use a rolling pin to crush the cracklings into small bits. Make dough of cornmeal, buttermilk, baking soda, and salt. Heat the cracklings in a frying pan and then stir them into the dough, which should be fairly stiff. Pour the resultant batch of batter into a well-greased, preheated pan. Tip: Heat the cracklings in the pan you plan to use to bake the bread, and I cannot recommend a cast-iron skillet too highly. The cracklings will ensure that the pan is nicely greased. Cook at 375 F until golden brown.
Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He is the author of 20 books and has edited and compiled many others.