Some say fire is, in part, what makes us human: Unlike animals, we evolved to cook our food before consuming it. That may be one reason why we are uniquely attracted to fire, a source of warmth and light that can be destructive and calming, dangerous and mystical. Its capacity to transform food, rendering it tender or burnt, smoky or crisp, has kept us alive and delighted since the beginning of time.
So it’s no wonder that fireworks light up the sky to mark each passing year, and in many cultures the cycles of the sun and moon are celebrated with actual flames.
In advance of the spring’s Persian new year, Nowruz, observers jump over small fires while asking the scarlet blazes to cleanse them and revive their health. A traditional Lunar New Year celebration in parts of Korea involves a bonfire, symbolizing purification and new beginnings. In other countries, including Ecuador, Colombia and Peru, New Year’s Eve celebrants burn effigies of cultural figures, politicians or other symbols of evil that they wish to leave in the past.
Even more than the flash of fire, food unites new year’s rituals around the world, whether they take place in the dead of winter, bright spring or a plentiful fall. Feasts, often lavish, accompany celebrations that last into the next day. Every culture has its own traditions when it comes to preparing and cooking auspicious foods, whether meant to bring good luck, prosperity, peace or health into the new year.
To celebrate Tet, a multiday new year’s festival, is to “an tet” in Vietnamese, which literally means to eat the day. No celebration would be complete without elaborate displays of food, including banh chung or banh tet, stuffed rice cakes that are wrapped like presents in banana leaves and symbolize the earth and its agricultural gifts. Rosh Hashanah is marked, in part, by lighting candles and eating apples and honey in the hopes of a bright and sweet new year. In Japan, soba eaten on the eve of the new year represents a long and healthy life, while osechi ryori, stacked boxes of small, symbolic delicacies such as candied chestnuts and sweet potatoes, herring roe, pickles and fishcakes, are shared with family on new years’ day.
Though fire is used to cook celebratory dishes, food is rarely set on fire specifically for the new year. But plenty of traditional dishes (and drinks) are set aflame or torched. This is mostly for spectacle — after all, who isn’t delighted by the grill tricks at Benihana, a tableside skillet of bananas Foster engulfed by leaping flames or a strong, sweet cocktail set ablaze? With the help of high-proof alcohol — it’s primarily the alcohol’s vapors, not the liquid, that’s catches fire — almost any food can be ignited, and that fire can add a light char and pleasantly smoky flavor to the finished dish.
So, I’m suggesting we start new traditions this year: Let’s light our New Year’s Eve meal on fire. It could be a steak Diane or lobster à l’américaine or cherries jubilee or crepes suzette. It could come from the quick, lightning-hot fire of a wok or the sustained, dancing heat of a grill or the laserlike flame of a torch. Setting food on fire is quicker and easier than you might think, and it’s exactly the kind of dramatic distraction and pyre-like ceremony we need now.
Especially this year, there’s a desire to burn it all to the ground. In 2018, Merriam-Webster added “dumpster fire” to its entries, defining it as “an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence.” The term had been in popular use for a few years, perhaps one-upping “hot garbage,” but GIFs and memes depicting a dumpster engulfed by flames helped spread the evocative image. It may be tempting to call 2020 a(nother) dumpster fire of a year. But we need more than a stinky blank slate.
We’ve seen a lot of fire this year already. Wildfires tore through forests and consumed homes and farmland, leaving behind smoke and ash. On the streets of cities across the country and beyond, businesses and statues were burned, in part, to light a fire in our collective consciousness. A deadly pandemic tore through the globe in a fever. Maybe more than in other recent years we want a renewal, but we need to commemorate the lessons we learned this year, too.
Though we can’t look forward to the same parties or crowded gatherings as in years’ past, we can still mark the occasion with food and fire. That was what I had in mind when writing three new recipes for a small New Year’s Eve meal: cheese saganaki, the famous flaming cheese from Greece; saffron shrimp flambé, a play on French and Cajun shrimp dishes; and a baked Alaska that you can bake, torch or light entirely on fire.
The danger of fire is, for some, part of the thrill, and these recipes will guide you through the process, but a word of caution: Before you set a dish on fire, have a pot lid handy for quickly putting out excess flames, clearance overhead, and long matches or a safety lighter, and never pour alcohol into a dish directly from the bottle “lest you create an inadvertent molotov cocktail,” as Kat Kinsman wrote in a helpful how-to a few years ago.
Take all the necessary precautions, or skip the flames if you would rather watch your fire sparkle up the sky. Either way, may the meal help light your way into a healthful, peaceful and hopeful 2021.
Salty and just a little melty, halloumi gets a fast sear before it’s set ablaze with ouzo, or the anise-scented liquor of your choice. Opa!
Saffron shrimp flambé
Quickly simmer shrimp in a silky tomato and saffron sauce before setting them on fire with a touch of cognac.
The most dramatic ice cream cake around, this baked Alaska comes together fairly easily. Torch or bake the meringue and then, with a splash of courage and orange-scented vodka, set it aflame.