New Year’s traditions have some Middle Georgians eating for good luck

jmink@macon.comDecember 30, 2012 

Growing up in New Jersey, Julie Hickman didn’t take part in New Year’s customs. She had heard of people going to parties and guzzling champagne at midnight, but she didn’t follow many traditions.

That is, until she moved south about 32 years ago. Now a resident of Lizella, Hickman celebrates a traditional Southern New Year’s.

“I truly feel my year would be a total failure if I don’t at least eat black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Day,” she said.

While local grocery stores are packed with people who are preparing a traditional Southern meal for New Year’s Day, several Middle Georgia residents celebrate the holiday in a different way.

Instead of pork and collard greens, Kim Bryant fills her plate with rice cakes, dumplings, pancakes and an assortment of vegetables. Bryant, a native of South Korea and owner of Seoul House Korean Restaurant in Warner Robins, hosts a traditional Korean feast at her home every Jan. 1.

In South Korea, many celebrate New Year’s Day on Jan. 1, but several also commemorate the Chinese calendar New Year’s, which begins this coming year on Feb. 10. Because she lives in the United States, Bryant always celebrates on Jan. 1, she said.

Her traditions mirror the Southern New Year’s in many ways. Like Southern-style foods, Korean New Year’s cuisine symbolizes luck -- mainly with money. The rice cakes, for example, symbolize wealth in the new year because they are round like coins, she said.

And, like many Georgia natives, Bryant’s home will be packed with relatives on New Year’s Day.

“That’s the celebration,” she said. “Just like American people, it’s a family reunion.”

Gus Maturana plans to ring in the new year by eating 12 grapes. Maturana, who works at Emilio’s Cuban Cafe in Warner Robins, always celebrates a Cuban New Year’s. The family feast includes a whole pork, yucca, rice and plantains.

“That’s pretty much the tradition,” he said. “That’s what 99 percent of Cubans eat on New Year’s.”

They eat 12 grapes, one for luck during each month, and they normally serve non-alcoholic cider at midnight because the children toast the new year with the adults, he said.

While she is not from another country, Jessica Hunt was surprised by some Southern traditions when she moved to Warner Robins from St. Louis, where the biggest tradition is going out on the town, she said. Hunt was mainly surprised by the number of churches that hold midnight services.

“I’d never seen it before,” she said, adding she thinks it’s a good idea. “They can celebrate and worship and pray for the new year.”

Hunt knows how many churches plan New Year’s celebrations. As assistant manager at Balloons-N-Parties in Warner Robins, she’s preparing for several midnight balloon drops. The store will go through up to 10,000 balloons this year, she said.

And at her house, Hunt is preparing her own Southern New Year’s meal. A couple years ago, she cooked her first batch of collard greens.

“I was scared of collard greens,” she said. “But they’re delicious.”

The greens, which symbolize dollars, is one Southern dish that means luck with money. Black-eyed peas resemble coins when cooked, and the color of corn bread represents gold, according to some traditions. And many prepare pork to signify progress -- a pig pushes forward before moving.

But those traditions vary depending on the host or hostess. At Saralyn Collins’ house, for example, the main dish is often roasted chicken or jambalaya because pork flavoring is used in many of the side items, said Collins, owner of Good to Go restaurant and catering service in Macon.

“I’m a Southern girl,” she said, “but I don’t want pork in everything I have.”

Still, there are plenty of collard greens, black-eyed peas and corn bread on the table, she said.

While Hickman has embraced the Southern New Year’s traditions, she usually swaps pork for chicken and dumplings to satisfy her guests.

“They’re good; they’re easy to make, and, if you have unexpected company, they go a long way,” she said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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