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Think "new year," think renewal, rebirth--and get ready to draw a really hard line between what went before (cold winter, lack of food, bad luck, debts) and whatís to come (springís plenty of food, warmth, good prospects, and good luck). So on January 1st--or on whatever day is the start of the new year on a particular calendar--people go into a frenzy of housecleaning, of preparing altars, of cooking traditional foods and communing with family and friends. Lots of new year resolutions are made. Lots of goal setting. Out with the old and in with the new.

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Ringing in the New Year with...Soup

(e-SoupSong 56: December 31, 2004)

ONCE UPON A TIME, New Year celebrations had nothing to do with January 1st...and, for that matter, they still donít in many parts of the world.

Why? Itís a calendar thing.

In the Beginning, out of the soup of chaos and even after Day and Night were created on the First Day, there was no concept of measuring and recording the passage of time. It got cold; it got hot; people adapted. Not until Neolithic man--or, more likely, women--started growing things did it become important to keep track. They kept their eyes on the growing season and marked the end of one natural cycle (winter) and the beginning of the next (spring) according to when the first new moon appeared in the sky after the vernal equinox. New year celebrations and rituals logically began with new life, the renewal of the earth, sprouting plants and animals popping babies--all based on the lunar calendar--you know, sometime around May, give or take a month, depending on where you lived.

One problem: "lunar" accounting doesnít add up right in the larger planetary rhythms of timekeeping. The moon waxes and wanes and waxes and wanes and still adds up to only 354 days in its annual cycles--so its calendar didnít and doesnít add up to a true 365-day year of earth orbiting the sun. And so began the battle of cultural calendars.

On the lunar side:

  • Babylonians, who were the first, apparently, to come up with a lunar calendar around 2000 BCE--and they intercalated an extra month from time to time to true the seasons.
  • Chinese, who--since 2637 BCE and the legendary Emperor Huangdi--have observed twelve 29- or 30-day months that repeat 7 times in the course of a 19-year period and generally stay in line with the seasons. New year? It starts at the second new moon after the beginning of winter, falling somewhere between January 20 and February 20.
  • Koreans, Vietnamese, and Tibetans...who celebrate Sol-nal, Tet, and Losar based on the same calculations.
  • Jews, who add an extra 29-day month Veadar every 19 years...and celebrate the New Year in the fall as Rosh Hashanah.
  • Muslims, who begin their calendar from Mohammadís flight from Mecca to Medina, count 354 days for 19 years and 355 days for 11, so their new year day moves backwards through all four seasons.
On the Zodiac (sidereal) side:
  • Persians (Iranians), who celebrate the new year on March 21st. Their pre-Zoroastrian calendar, which was formalized by Zoroaster and perfected by astronomer/poet Omar Khayyam, featured 12 months--named after the guardian angels of the holy book of Zoroastrianism--of 30 days each--thereby giving 5 extra days for ancestors to visit their children on earth. New Year, or No Ruz, was the most important festival of all for this sacred time.
On the solar side:
  • Ancient Egyptians, who fixed a 365-day calendar based on the confluence of the Dog Star Sirius reappearing in the eastern sky about the time of the Nileís annual flood.
  • Romans, who progressed from a 304-day calendar that just flat ignored 60 days of wintertime...to Numa Pompiliusí faulty solar calendar that first made Januarius 1st the official start of the new year...to Julius Caesar (in consultation with the astronomer Sosigenes) banning the use of lunar calculations and declaring a year of 445 days in 46 BCE to correct Romeís calendar, a time known as "the year of confusion."
  • Roman Catholic Europeans, who corrected the Julian calendar in 1582 under Pope Gregory XIII then exported this new Gregorian calendar all over the world with their explorers, conquerors, missionaries, and colonialists. Not-to-be-moved Germans stuck with the Julian calendar until 1700; England and the American colonies until 1752; Russia, 1918; and Turkey, 1927.
Whew! Now weíre through the hard part and can get on with the whys and wherefores of new year celebrations, not to mention which soups traditionally fuel them in kitchens across the world.

Itís a pretty simple and totally universal proposition, when you think about it. People want and need fresh starts. They need fresh starts, so they create appropriate times for them, bundle them up with a lot of traditions and rituals, and declare themselves reborn at the end.

In the old days of agricultural societies, what better time to ritually honor that rebirth than when the earth was renewing itself? For peoples bound to church calendars, like Muslims and Christians, the ritual date is important, not the season in which it falls. For the modern world, driven as it is by the need for global coordination of commerce and contracts, January 1st is a convenient consensus. And if January 1 isnít your new year of choice, itís still perfectly fine to celebrate--just donít ignore the "other" new year day thatís traditional for you too.

Think "new year," think renewal, rebirth--and get ready to draw a really hard line between what went before (cold winter, lack of food, bad luck, debts) and whatís to come (springís plenty of food, warmth, good prospects, and good luck). So on January 1st--or on whatever day is the start of the new year on a particular calendar--people go into a frenzy of housecleaning, of preparing altars, of cooking traditional foods and communing with family and friends. Lots of new year resolutions are made. Lots of goal setting. Out with the old and in with the new.

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Guess what?

Youíve been had...again.

This monthís essay is yet another shameless promotion of Soupsongís new book, An Exaltation of Soups. The LAST shameless promotion, I promise: My new yearís resolution. But the book is actually just out in bookstores everywhere, so how could I resist one last blast on the last day of the old year? I couldnít. Youíll find something very close to this essay in Chapter 14, beginning the section on Soups of Piety and Ritual, along with traditional New Year soups and soup stories from Haiti, Iran, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Poland, Tibet, and the U.S.

What you WONíT find in Exaltation is Sancocho, the traditional New Year soup from the Dominican Republic.

But youíll find it here. Sandra Takaki just sent me a marvelous recipe, and all the lore that goes with it. Sandra says:

"Sancocho is one of those comfort foods that we eat especially around Christmas. The night to eat it (or morning, as you see fit) is New Years, after a night of celebrating. One can eat a bowl right before going to sleep, and then eat the leftovers the next day. It is, as we say, levanta muertos--or Ďraises the dead.í

"The truth behind sancocho is that it is made, like many soups, with whatever you have at hand. This is one version of it, but there are many versions. Normally I have chicken in my house, so I just make it with chicken, and if I have chorizo I will put some in. If I have potatoes, maybe I will put them in as well. In the Dominican Republic the best sancocho is the Sancocho de 7 carnes (7-meat Sancocho) which is really meat from 4 different animals (one is always goat), but sausages are counted as different meats. ...So enjoy, and Buen Provecho

Above all, Sandra says, be creative and substitute any ingredients you canít find in your local market. One thing is sure: Youíre going to love itó-piquant, savory, intensely meaty, and bursting with color and flavor

SANCOCHO (for 6)

  • Juice from 2 sour oranges (or a mix of lemon and orange juice)
  • 1/4 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1/6 bunch fresh oregano, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, mashed
  • Salt and pepper

  • 1 lb. chicken (with or without bones), cut into bite-size chunks
  • 1/3 lb. pork shoulder cut into bite-size chunks
  • 1/3 lb. uncooked pork chops cut up into bite-size chunks
  • 1/2 lb. beef stew meat, cut into bite-size chunks
  • 2 pieces cooking ham cut into medium-sized pieces.
  • 1/4 lb. longaniza (blood sausage) sliced into Ĺ-inch slices

  • 4 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 6 cups chicken stock (or beef)

  • 1/4 oz Ajies Gustosos (small chilies), chopped
  • 1 Anaheim or Cuban pepper, chopped
  • 1 large white onion, chopped
  • 1 ear fresh corn cut into 6 pieces
  • 2 "green" plantain (platanos), peeled and washed in water with lime juice and then each cut into 8 pieces
  • 1/3 lb. pumpkin (auyama) cut into bite-size chunks
  • 1/4 lb. yellow yam (Yautia amarilla) cut into bite-size chunks
  • 1/4 lb. white yam (Yautia blanca) cut into bite-size chunks
  • 1/3 lb. yucca cut into bite-size chunks
  • 1/3 lb. sweet potatoes (batata) cut into bite-size chunks
  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • 2 cups cooked rice (optional)
1. Make a marinade of the sour orange juice, herbs, garlic, and salt and pepper. Turn all the meats in it, cover, and let marinate at least 2 hours (or overnight in the fridge), turning every 30 minutes.

2. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven. Drain the meats, reserving the marinade, and add them to the pot, browning on all sides. Stir in the marinade and a little stock to scrape up and dissolve the flavorful brown bits on the bottom of the pot. Pour in the rest of the stock and bring to a boil. Add all the vegetables, return to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and let simmer for 1-2 hours. The longer it is simmered, Sandra says, the better...and I agree.

3. If you plan to serve with rice, start it while the soup is cooking.

4. When ready to serve, add salt and pepper to taste. If you want a thick texture, you may puree some of the vegetables and pour the puree back into the soup...but what a shame to cover up the brilliance and texture of these colorful chunks of veggies. Ladle into deep bowls, adding 1 or 2 tbsp of rice. A couple of drops of hot sauce does bring out the taste. To echo Sandra, buen provecho!

Wishing you peace and happiness in 2005
(and praying for quick aid and solace to the tsunami victims),
Pat Solley
www.soupsong.com
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NEXT MONTH: Soupways of Native North America