RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Okay, time to start thinking about making some good luck for the New Year, and one way to do that is to eat black-eyed peas tomorrow. That southern American food tradition is supposed to bring good luck. There are plenty of other traditions in other countries.
Cook and author Nigella Lawson joins us to talk about her favorite dishes for ringing in the New Year.
Ms. NIGELLA LAWSON (Cook): I think the thing about foods in the New Year is that there's a rather glorious symbolism. I mean, I found that I was most interested in Italian traditions because they are the most pronounced. And they wanted to be prescriptive about what they must and must not eat. But really what they must eat are lentils. And the reason for that is that lentils are thought to resemble coins, and thus prosperity in the coming year.
And actually, once you look into that you see how many cultures do look for that sort of symbolism. Now, traditionally in Italy that's eaten with a catechino, which is really like a sort of salami-type sausage eaten hot. It's huge, and you slice it and you eat it with the lentils.
And I think, of course, it makes perfect sense, the day after everyone's being carousing all night and drinking many a toast indeed to the New Year, it does make sense to have a meal that is largely made up of carbohydrates, don't you think?
MONTAGNE: Yes. I think there's probably some deep down practical virtue there that has been translated. So what else? I gather that grapes figure rather prominently in some New Year's celebrations in Italy, but also other places.
Ms. LAWSON: Certainly they do. In Italy, there seems to be certainly more manic grape-eating, which is that as the clock strikes midnight people try to eat as many grapes as they can. And that's meant to indicate a year of health follows. Now, it's quite interesting because often folk traditions really show something that we have only learned recently, scientifically.
So Italians have always known that grapes make you healthy. Scientists have only recently discovered that in fact red grapes contain something called resvesterol, which is meant to help prevent against cancer. So it amuses me that folk wisdom is often indeed wise.
But in other countries, notably Spain and Malta, there is a measured grape-eating. You eat 12 grapes and the 12 grapes you eat are meant to symbolize, one, each month that lies ahead. And if the grape is sweet, it means the month will be good. And if by terrible accident you have a sour grape, you know that - you know, if the third grape you eat is sour, that March is not going to be one of your best months.
And of course I don't believe for one moment that a Spaniard or someone from Malta really believes that it will bring exactly bad luck. But I think you're doing something year in, year out, that your antecedents have done as well. And I think that's such an important part of human ritual.
MONTAGNE: And what other foods - anything that isn't round?
Ms. LAWSON: I'm trying to think.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LAWSON: Well, there's certainly - it seems to me that number rather than shape is also important. So there are cultures that do say, you know, there must be 12 dishes on the table. But over and over again, wherever I looked, the general idea was abundance. We know this, all through the holidays the mood is that of abundance. But for the New Year it has a different weight because when we are reveling in the holidays, it's really food for food's sakes. But at the New Year, the abundance is seen to be symbolic of the need for abundance in the year to follow. So it's the only time I can think where having too much to eat is seen as almost a moral duty. You know, it just makes everyone feel good about having a big lunch.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Which is a very good way to start the New Year.
Ms. LAWSON: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: Happy New Year to you.
Ms. LAWSON: And to you. Happy everything.
MONTAGNE: Nigella Lawson is the author of several cookbooks, and most recently "Nigella Express."
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: And if you like to make Nigella's recipe for lentils and Italian sausage, go to npr.org.