Taste of Freedom: New Years - #105

BURT WOLF: Most of our holidays and celebrations were developed to mark the cycles of nature and they have taken place in traditional forms for centuries.

They bind the past to the present and predict the future. They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.

But when these ceremonies arrived in America, they started to change. No longer controlled by convention these ancient celebrations began to evolve. They had gotten their first Taste of Freedom and they would never be the same.


BURT WOLF: Our first holiday celebrations were used to mark a New Year and were based on the sun and the moon. Today, however, we measure time according to the movement of the electrons of the cesium atom. When 9 billion, 92million, 31thousand, 7hundred and 70 beats have been recorded; it’s time to wish everybody Happy New Year. In New York the announcement is made by a glittering ball that slides down a pole, reaching the base at midnight. The dropping ball is actually an old navy custom that was used in ports all over the world. The ball would drop each day at noon as a signal to ships in the harbor that it was time to reset their clocks.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The moment in time between the old year and the new year, when the past meets the future is a dangerous moment. And we try to prepare for it by taking stock of our strengths and weaknesses and making a plan for the future. And we announce that plan because we believe wishes made at that moment have the best chance of coming true. Hope reborn with the new year. 

BURT WOLF: A second later when the old year becomes the new year is also a significant instant—filled with superstition and elaborate rituals. It’s important to be fully awake and clear headed when the midnight arrives. It’s the moment when you can consciously direct your fate. And you should be in a good mood during the transition.  The whole idea of a New Year’s Eve party is to establish a happy setting as the New Year begins.


FILM CLIP: Ann Miller singing “Auld Lang Syne.”

BURT WOLF: Some historians believe that our very first ritual was the one we designed to celebrate the start of a new year.  It usually makes sense to start at the beginning.  But how do you decide when the beginning begins?  Interesting problem and societies have answered the question differently from century to century and from place to place. Many people believe that there is a brief moment between the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year when good fortune can be brought in. It makes it an excellent time to test your luck. You can even gamble on love.

ANTHONY AVENI ON CAMERA: New Year’s is about beginnings.  And every beginning has to start somewhere.  I know that every time I go on a diet, I always have to wonder when I'm going to begin it.  Am I going to begin it, the next Monday, after the weekend?  Am I going to begin it in two weeks when I know I'm not going on some cruise or a lecture tour.  When do we start?  When do we open up the cycle?  Our opening of the cycle stems from the Roman Empire, which used to be the first day of spring.  Rather an appropriate time to start a beginning because in Ancient Rome, that's about the start of the planting season.  And, so our original new year, in which the year was only 120 days long, by the way, only the four months during which we planted, was March the 21st, the equinox.  It was a Roman emperor around the third century A.D. who actually back shifted the first day of the year from March the 21st back to January 1st.  Now this is a Christian transformation, because we want to start our year when Christ brings new light into the world.  And that happens right after the 12 days of Christmas.  So January the 1st is indeed a late addition to the year. And the calendar that we developed is fairly unique because people all over the world have different starting dates. 

BURT WOLF: January 1st is an appropriate time to start the New Year because the 1st was dedicated to the God Janus. He’s usually shown as a figure with two heads, one facing forward and the other looking back. Janus represents the turning point—the moment when the old year gives way to the new—the instant when you look back to the past and forward to the future.

The French linked the start of the New Year to the arrival of Easter Sunday. They celebrated the rebirth of the year along with the rebirth of Christ—they combined two important events that celebrated regeneration.  Until the middle of the 1900s, the French did not give Christmas presents—gifts were exchanged only at New Year’s.

Visits were made to the homes of people who were higher up in your business or political circles and you always left your card behind. But since almost everyone was out visiting someone else, slightly higher on the social ladder, nobody was at home. So people began mailing their business cards. Eventually the business card evolved into the New Year’s greeting card.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The use of a baby as a symbol for the New Year goes back well over 2,500 years to the ancient Greeks. They had a holiday where they celebrated the return of the growing season and during the feast, the new season was represented by a constantly returning baby.

BURT WOLF: The image of the new year as a diapered baby being welcomed in as the old year is ushered out illustrates an old German idea that was imported into North America during the 1800s. Often the old year is shown as Father Time with a scythe that he uses to cut off the past.

In order to bring in the New Year you must get rid of the old one. It’s a time to turn over a new leaf—to make your New Year’s plans and resolutions. Your house should be clean and all the garbage put out.

The moment when the old year becomes the new is a moment when evil spirits can slip past your guard. Loud noises, however, can scare them off, which is one reason New Year’s is marked with the blowing of horns and the banging of drums. Making noise is also symbolic of initiations, and new beginnings; it’s like banging on a door to make it open.

Being together with friends and family as the old year gives way to the new goes back for thousands of years.

ANTHONY AVENI ON CAMERA: One of the most important act we indulge in at New Year's time is making those resolutions, the ones we know we're going to break by January 5th, I think in most cases.  The period of the end of the year, the last few days of the year, the 12 days of Christmas, are very, very important days because as we close out the cycle we know that the behavior of things on those days will determine what lies ahead. 

How we behave at the turn of the year, how we behave at the right at the midpoint of that cycle, that overturning of the cycle will, we hope, predict how we'll behave in the future.  So it's all about getting off to a good start, turning over a new leaf. And you do that at the time when the door is open, because that's the time when I think the spirits and the gods would be most sensitive to helping us to achieve our goals.  Unfortunately, I suppose, statistics would show not many of those resolutions ultimately work out.

BURT WOLF: These days, an effort is made to make the New Year’s celebration distinctly different from Christmas. Christmas is for families and particularly for children. New Year’s on the other hand is for adults. The parties are public and held late at night after the children are in bed. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You should bring good things into your home and accept any gifts that come your way—especially if they involve money or sweet foods, but make sure everything comes into your home before you give anything out. There’s an old saying: “give out then bring in, bad luck will begin --- bring in then give out, good luck comes about.”  Simple.

BURT WOLF: In Scotland, your happiness in the coming year is thought to depend on the first person that comes to pay a visit. That person is known as the First Footer. He should be male, tall, not flat-footed, and carry an evergreen branch. If he fits the description he is known as “the lucky bird”. Almost everything associated with the First Footer is dark. Dark things are thought of as dangerous and powerful, so you want to get them on your side as soon as possible. Also, everything the First Footer brings into the house must be used up inside the house: nothing brought in by him should be taken out or your good luck might escape.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: If you like your work and you want it to continue doing it throughout the New Year, carry something that’s a symbol of your work on New Year’s Day. If you wear new things it will help you get new things. And on New Year’s Day don’t lend anything to anybody and don’t cry and don’t whine…I hate whining.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Many people believe that what you eat and drink on New Year’s Eve will affect your luck in the future year. On New Year’s Eve the ancient Romans would set out a huge table and put all of the foods that they wanted to eat during the next year on that table.  It was important to pay attention to the individual foods as well as the quantities. You wanted a lot of stuff. Anything you didn’t put on the table you ran the risk of not getting next year.

CATHY KAUFMAN ON CAMERA: New Year’s celebrations in Colonial America were very much derived from Dutch and to some extent English customs of holding open houses on New Year’s.  The housewife would open up the doors on midnight on New Year’s Eve to let out the bad spirits, welcome in the good spirits.  And then the following day, friends, family, any one in the town would come and make a brief social call, visit, have a little something to drink.  Perhaps some cake or cookies, whatever was on the buffet.  But it was very important that you visited everyone. I don't think we have changed the holiday so much from what you would see in Dutch communities, in English communities who also adapted the Dutch tradition.  Even if they're not necessarily open houses.  This is the one time of year that you can show up at a party with 150 people in a Manhattan apartment and nobody thinks twice about that.  The idea of just getting the more the merrier.  The fact that we pack into Times Square as the communal open house for New Yorkers I think tells us something about that sense of wanting to re-establish bonds with our community at large.

BURT WOLF: New Year’s is a time to take a look at the shape of things to come. Foods eaten during the New Year’s celebration often have a symbolic shape. Breads and cakes that are usually long will be rounded for New Year’s. The circle expresses your hope for a “well-rounded” year. It also keeps the luck from escaping out of the end. Round pasta dishes will be served instead of those that have ends like spaghetti or linguini.

The foods we traditionally serve at New Year’s often show two aspects of life.

One group is expensive and extravagant. They indicate our desire to have lots of good stuff in the new year. But along side the foods of extravagance are foods that are simple, inexpensive or easy to make.

CATHY KAUFMAN ON CAMERA: New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are two sides of the same coin.  They are indulgence the night before and repentance the morning after.  New Year’s we tend to go all out.  It's a time; it's the last night of the year.  You know whatever is in the larder that's yummy and fabulous our last you know, pennies can be put to some fabulous indulgence.  And then it really is the morning after.  You wake up perhaps you haven't had too much to drink, but it is a sobering thought of I now have to face the New Year, let me be a little more frugal.  A little more measured.  I've had my Bacchanalian blow- out and now on New Year’s Day that's when you have Hoppin’ John.  That's not a New Year’s Eve food.  That is a New Year’s Day food, something much more humble. 

New Year’s Eve is a difficult holiday to categorize from a food perspective.  New Year’s Eve depends so much on your budget, what you feel like doing.  I think if there are any two foods that tend to show up, it's champagne and caviar if you can afford it.  People like doing that.  But I have gone through scads and scads of magazine articles, cookbooks looking for common threads in the New Year’s Eve menus.  They're really not there other than to say, this is an important meal.  It's an expensive meal.  But there's no one food I think other than the caviar and champagne that is fairly consistent.

I think they are there because of the expense and people think they seem very, very sophisticated.  So it's a time to be sophisticated.  Men it’s often the black tie, tuxedo, long dress and you know what could be more glamorous than biased cut satin and champagne and caviar. 

BURT WOLF: Champagne is one of the ancient regions of France but it’s also the place where champagne was invented.

One of the classic champagne houses is Laurent-Perrier. It’s run by the family

de Nonancourt. There’s Bernard and his two daughters, Alexandra and Stephanie.

Their champagne is made in a small town in the middle of the French district of Champagne and they are made by the most traditional method.  They select their grapes from over a thousand different growers in the region, and their job is to find the ones that are just right for the balance.

When the grapes arrive from the growers, they are crushed and their juices allowed to ferment, which takes about two to three weeks. The sugar in the juice changes to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.  The gas is allowed to escape.  The wine from each area is held separately in stainless steel tanks.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Each champagne house tries to develop a “house style” for its non-vintage champagne, and to reproduce that style each year. The job of developing the house style and reproducing it year after year is the work of the champagne blender.  The blender will use wines from over two hundred small villages, and a number of different years, in order to develop and maintain the house style.

BURT WOLF: After the blending, the wine goes into its bottle along with a small amount of yeast and a little cane sugar.  Then the bottles go into the cellar for the next three to five years.  Shortly after they arrive, the yeast in the bottle starts a second fermentation.  Gas is formed again, but this time it’s trapped in the wine -- and that’s how champagne gets its effervescent bubbles.

The next step in the process is called riddling. The bottles are held more or less on their sides and each day a riddler comes in and by hand turns the bottle a little to one side and slightly up.  The solids that have formed in the bottle as a result of the second fermentation slowly slide down to the neck. A riddler goes through 60,000 bottles a day.

When all the sediment is in the neck, the bottle is placed into a very cold solution of brine.  The liquid in the neck freezes. The cap is taken off and the block of sediment shoots out.  A little cane sugar is added to balance any acidity, plus some more wine to top off the bottle.  Then the cork goes on, followed by the wire covering that keeps it in place. The wire is important... there’s a considerable amount of pressure in the bottle.  Three more months of resting in the cellar and it’s ready to party.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What makes one great champagne house different from another is the style that they use in making their non-vintage champagne, and it’s a style that they use year after year.  But every once in a while the grapes of a specific year are so extraordinary that they decide to make a champagne just using the grapes of that year.  And when they do, they call it a vintage champagne.  But a vintage champagne tells you more about the year than it does about the style of the house.

BURT WOLF: You hear the sound of a champagne bottle opening and you think... somebody’s celebrating something! 

Sweetness is also important. It’s a metaphor for the good fortune people hope to have in the New Year. And chocolate plays an important role, symbolizing the rich and sweet hopes that the giver has for the recipient.

An individual chocolate cake can stand as a gift for the trials of the past and a hope for a sweet and rich future. Here’s how they are prepared in the kitchens of The Trianon Palace Hotel in the French town of Versailles. Eggs go into a mixing bowl and get whisked together until they are quite fluffy and filled with air.  That’s a ten-minute job by hand or about two minutes by machine.

In a second bowl, sugar is mixed together with flour and some melted semi-sweet chocolate.  The chocolate mixture is then blended into the whipped eggs... a little of the egg mixture at first, and then the rest.  You don’t want to mix it so much that the air in the egg is forced out.  The air gives the final cake its lightness.  Half-cup molds are filled about three-quarters of the way with the batter. And then it’s into the oven for a few minutes. The chef mixes a little heavy cream together with a little Bailey’s liqueur and covers the base of the serving plate with that blend.  A design is drawn on the plate with some melted chocolate and finally the baked chocolate is placed onto the plate.  It looks like a little cake, but when you cut into the center it will be soft and runny like a soufflé.  Definitely a great way start to a new year.

The balance to a dish of something that’s sweet and rich is something that is inexpensive and simple--which is what is often served on New Year’s Day. The idea is to say, “please give me the rich stuff because I love it, but don’t forget I’m just a simple person at heart.”

Gerald Hirigoyen is a Basque chef who came to America and opened up two fine restaurants in San Francisco.  His simple New Year’s Day dish is a potato and white bean soup.  Originally, this was eaten for lunch as a mash of beans and potatoes.  Now it's served as a thick, smooth soup.  The preparation begins with olive oil being heated in a saucepan; chopped onions and crushed garlic go in and are sautéed for five minutes.  Then dried white beans that have been soaked in water overnight, and potatoes, along with a sprig of rosemary.  Gerald pours in a vegetable stock and the soup simmers for an hour.  

GERALD HIRIGOYEN ON CAMERA: And also what I like about this soup too ... its mostly vegetable and it still has a great flavor to it.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And very low in calories…


BURT WOLF: While the soup is cooking, olives are pureed in a blender.  When the soup is cooked, the rosemary is removed and the soup goes into a blender to be pureed.  The soup is poured into bowls and the olive puree and some chives go on top.  New Year’s is also the time to eat something new or unusual, under the theory that people are hoping for new experiences in the coming year.  The day was often used to visit the more unusual members of your family and celebrate with them.  And it was always a mark of honor to do the visiting which is why I would like to thank you for visiting with us while we took a look at the rituals of New Year’s.  Happy New Year! For Taste of Freedom, I’m Burt Wolf.