Tomorrow is New Year's Day, and if you were living in New York in the mid-19th century, you would, if you were a man, be roaming the streets on an endless round of social calls.
If you were a woman, you would be home waiting to receive the men, ready since early morning to dispense hot tea, bouillon, coffee and a bowl of punch. Nor would you be stingy when it came to food, as "Manners and Social Usages," published in 1884, makes clear:
"Hot oysters, salad, boned turkey, quail and hot terrapin with wines ad libitum are offered by the wealthy; but this is a difficult table to keep in order when 10 men call at 1 o'clock and 40 at 4, and none between. The best table is one which is furnished with boned turkey, jellied tongues, and pates, sandwiches and similar dishes, with cake and fruit as decorative additions . . . a maidservant, neatly dressed, should be in constant attendance on this table and a manservant or two will be needed to attend the door and to wait at table."
Styles change and you'll be hard put to find any gentleman roaming on New Year's Day, unless he is racing through half-time in search of a six-pack. Today men yearn not for the punch bowl, but the Rose Bowl, and any New Year's Day party which ignores that is doomed to failure. You'll find that guests, sniffing about like truffle pigs, have found your TV and settled in front of it.
Having conceded the TV pride of place at your party, you must then plan foods that are simple to eat, require a minimum of concentration and hardly any silverware. A spoon, maybe, but nothing more complicated. Stock up on extra napkins, since these will fall to the floor when people jump out of their chairs to scream and clap each other on the back. Serving anything other than beer is effete, a sign of a host/hostess who may shortly inquire as to why those men are jumping all over each other.
Set out pretzels, potato chips, bowls of nuts, anything for nervous gnawing when the team is behind. The main course should be a hearty one. Chili, highly spiced and served in bowls over chunks of cheddar cheese, is good. It is easy to make, easy to keep warm; and easy to eat (large spoons, please).
With the chili, serve several packages of corn chips; who remembers to pass anything during a football game?
If it all seems less elegant than the way our ancestors opened the New Year, it may not, angry wives' comments to the contrary, be any duller.
That same book of manners reports: "Many letters come to us asking 'What subjects should be talked about during a New Year's call?' Alas! We can only suggest the weather and the good wishes appropriate to the season."