Frugal celebrations

Funny how some things we traditionally do to mark the new year are long-term resolutions, while others are one-off celebrations. Eating right and working out? Oh, we’re going to do that every day. (What’s that? We said the same thing last year? Hush, child.)

Massive hangover? One-off celebration, I hope, and not a new leaf. On the up side, with a headache like that, the year can only get better. Think of it as a cause for optimism.

Frugality? Eating, say, a simple meal of beans and cornbread? Hum. Now that sounds like a resolution, and yet it seems to be a celebration. Half the South will be eating black-eyed peas today. Ninety-five percent of that half will be back to eating slab-o-meatwiches tomorrow.

I have never been able to get into the idea of eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s dinner. My official excuse is that I’m not a native southerner, and so I shouldn’t be expected eat them.1 But that’s backwards. The real trouble is that I eat them all the time. In graduate school I learned to cook beans and make them interesting, an integral part of my strategy of surviving relative poverty through craft, and now, working from home again, it’s easy enough to let a pot of beans simmer on the back of the stove most days. My daughter loves black-eyed peas in particular, more so with side-meat cracklings (pastured-pork side-meat cracklings, natch), and so that’s the way I make them. Usually with cornbread. Often with collards. Once or twice a month. It hardly seems the way to mark an occasion; it’s just food. But if you rarely cook, I suppose, if you rarely cook slowly, if having a pot of anything simmering all day on the back burner feels special — if your time is more precious to you than your money, then maybe time is what you spend for a celebration.

Where I grew up in Pennsylvania the traditional dinner is pork and sauerkraut, but I recall my father, who grew up in a traditionally Pennsylvania Dutch home in a neighboring county, saying that his family never ate pork and kraut on New Year’s Day because they ate pork and kraut all the time. Pork and kraut was what you had in the winter. For the new year they ate stuffed flank steak instead. But hardly anybody back home eats pork and kraut on a regular basis anymore, and I expect that’s part of the attraction of making it New Year’s dinner now. It reminds people of their roots.

I’ll take any excuse to eat pork and sauerkraut, but I’m saving it for Sunday dinner this week so I can start that first full week of work with a fridge full of leftovers. Today? Chinese food. Homemade potstickers. I could spin you a yarn about how filled dumplings symbolize prosperity, but the truth is, we just like them, and I’ll take any opportunity to eat good potstickers, too.

What about tradition? The whole family will be involved in making dinner, and that’s good enough. (If my daughter likes it enough, she’ll claim it’s a tradition next year anyway.)

As for frugality, well, that ought to be a resolution, not a celebration. I have to think there’s something deeply wrong with the idea that frugality is something to be observed once a year. (Though perhaps also deeply American.) But maybe New Year’s is the wrong time to start, since we don’t keep most of those other resolutions anyway. My concession to frugality today will be using up some of the last of that Christmas box of citrus in an orange-almond cake. We can eat beans tomorrow.

  1. Yes, I know people says they look like coins. I hope these people have good financial advisors, because black-eyed peas look about as much like coins as those presents my chickens leave for me all over the yard. If you want food that looks like money, do as the Chinese do and eat golden oranges.