The Turning of the Year

It’s that time again, between the Solstice and the New Year, when the sun stands still in its rising point and the holidays come thick and fast. It’s the one time of the year when I make some effort to cook “properly” — to have more than one side dish at a meal instead of the stir-fries and one-pot recipes I rely on most of the year. This year, I’ve been given a Petit Jean ham (well, a half-ham, which is still a remarkable hunk of pork; it’s from an Arkansas smokehouse and the name is pronounced “petty-gene”). I have borrowed a friend’s roasting pan, and will cook it on Christmas Eve and reheat it for New Year’s Day. I’ll give some away, eat a great deal of it myself, and freeze the rest to bring out later in the year: the kind of bounty I feel my ancestors would have approved. I’m being a bit lazy with Christmas Eve, and bought pre-made potatoes gratin to go with the Brussels sprouts, but for New Year’s Day I will cook it all myself: black-eyed peas, collard greens, yeast rolls. The only real decision is whether to cook the collard greens the traditional way, long and slow and flavored with (more) ham and vinegar, or to stir-fry them with shallots and garlic and maybe mushrooms. This is a family tradition, one that’s shared across the South to bring luck and money in the coming year. You want black-eyed peas for the coins, the collard greens for the folding money, and pork because a pig roots forward (as opposed to the other big dinner food, chicken, which scratches backward). My folks always served champagne, and I personally like a mimosa while I’m cooking, but we were lapsed Episcopalians, not teetotalers of any stripe. Lisa’s family always watched the Rose Bowl Parade, and I generally have it on for company. Now that my mother is gone, I have inherited the family silver, so I’ll spend some time polishing up the serving pieces and deciding what I’m going to use this year. I will carve the ham with the knife my father always used.

These are my folkways, traditions that I’ve chosen to keep. They come from myriad sources — the black-eyed peas, for example, are both “what Grandma made” and something that spread from  African-American culture into the white south — but they are all still living practice, things I look forward to as we pass through the darkest night and the year turns again.