Ever since I can remember, my family has had black-eyed peas and rice, ham hocks or chitterlings and collard greens on New Year's Day. My momma said the black-eyed peas and rice would bring us all good luck for the year.
Part of that luck would be in the form of money because the peas represented coins. If that didn't work, there was always the collards, which represented greenbacks. The ham hocks or chitterlings were just for taste.
When I got grown, I became a vegetarian, much to my mother's dismay ("Are you a Muslim?" she asked). Because she used pork to spice all of the good luck dishes, I shunned tradition for six years. Sometimes I think it did affect my luck. This New Year's Day I'm not taking any chances. I'll be sitting in front of the television watching football games, with my plate piled with black-eyed peas and rice, chitterlings and collard greens.
In homes across the city, families will be eating traditional New Year's Day dishes, too. Other residents will be leaving the District to visit relatives and share the traditional feast.
Customs may vary according to a person's ethnic group or birthplace, but all of these meals have one thing in common: They have been passed down from generation to generation for so long that no one knows where it all started.
My family's "good luck" feast is a tradition for black Americans, particularly for blacks from the South. There are several variations. For instance, some people substitute cabbage for the collards.
My friend Jewelene Black, a tiny woman who is a Metro bus driver, hails from Savannah, Ga., where they call peas and rice "hopping john." She remembers that one year, her Uncle Haskell "put two half-dollars in the pot of peas and rice while it was cooking." Black figured the money was for good luck, but she said, "My Aunt Ruth said she didn't know what it was for. She was just mad."
L. Lanier Cooper, a free-lance writer who grew up on a farm in Birmingham, Ala., said, "Hogs were killed in the winter. I guess that's why pork is a tradition this time of the year." He'll be visiting his grandmother in Alabama and she usually serves a boiled hog's head and black-eyed peas.
But James Schwartz, a Washington Post researcher, said it is also a Czechoslovakian custom to eat pork, specifically the head of a pig, on New Year's Day. Schwartz said friends tell him that the pig is cooked and served with a sauce made of horseradish and apples.
Schwartz's own family, of German descent, eats plum pudding the first day of each year. He recalled, "Jeannie, the family cook who has been with us forever, always made a plum pudding for good luck. Usually she doused the creation with brandy and served it au flambe."
It is a spectacular finale to the New Year's meal and the family sits at the dining table awaiting the entrance of the plum pudding. Schwartz remembers one year "the feast ended on a lousy note, when Jeannie entered the dining room and the bowl in which the pudding flamed smashed to bits -- apparently from heat."
Schwartz, his sisters and cousins, not ones to defy tradition, were willing to pick out the tiny splinters of glass and eat the pudding but Schwartz's mother wouldn't allow it.
The dish that Gladys Gaviria's family will be waiting on is ajiaco, a chicken soup that has a potato base and is served with dollops of sour cream and cubed avocado.
"My mother and my grandmother made it," said Gaviria, a receptionist at the Andromeda Hispano mental health center who is from Colombia. "We would eat a light dinner about 6 or 7 p.m. New Year's Eve and eat the ajiaco just after midnight."
This New Year's she will prepare the dish for her children. The family will wait for the clock to strike midnight, then eat their servings of ajiaco. For Gaviria, the dish means more than luck. It is a ritual and a way of keeping in touch with the spirit of home.
District resident Stephanie Honeywood agrees. "Preparing hog head cheese was a ritual to my mother," she said. "The best part to me was watching the hog head -- with eyes and all -- boiling up on top of the stove. My sister was scared of it. I'd get the eyes and chase her around the house.
"I'd save the eyes, the teeth and the jawbone for weeks," added Honeywood. "Older people would see me with them and say, 'Girl, what are you doing with that stuff?' But I always thought that teeth were precious, and something with teeth had to be worth money."
She said her mother and a friend would boil the hog head, then grind up the meat, season it, pack it in a container and put it in the refrigerator to jell and become "hog head cheese." They ate the cheese on crackers or bread.
She remembers one particular New Year's Eve when her mother was in intensive care, but she beckoned her daughter to the bed and asked her to go to the market and get a hog head.
"We were holding a prayer vigil for her and I was so worried about her that I didn't go out to get the hog's head," said Honeywood, who also realized then that "no one else in the family could make hog head cheese.
"The more I talk about it," she said, packing to go to Los Angeles to visit her mother, "the more I think I might give it a try this year."