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Nigella Lawson Shares New Year's Food Traditions

Christmas has its traditional feast of turkey and trimmings, along with holiday treats like fruitcake and decorated cookies. But what about New Year's?

Other than champagne, and black-eyed peas in the South, you might be hard-pressed to name delicacies special to ringing in another year. But outside the United States, New Year's food traditions abound.

Cook and author Nigella Lawson tells Renee Montagne that she finds a "rather glorious symbolism" in food eaten specifically for the New Year. In Italy, for example, tradition calls for people to eat lentils.

"The reason for that is that lentils are thought to resemble coins and, thus, prosperity in the coming year," Lawson says. "And actually, once you look into that, you see how many cultures do look for that sort of symbolism."

The lentils are traditionally eaten with cotechino, a sort of salami-type sausage eaten hot. "I think, of course, it makes perfect sense the day after everyone's been carousing all night and drinking toasts — many a toast, indeed, to the New Year — it does make sense to have a meal that is largely made up of carbohydrates," she says.

Grapes also figure into New Year's celebrations in Italy and other European countries. Italians try to consume as many grapes as possible at midnight, which is meant to indicate a year of health, Lawson says.

In Spain and Malta, grape eating is more measured, Lawson says.

"You eat 12 grapes, and the 12 grapes you eat are meant to symbolize one for each month that lies ahead," she says. "And if the grape is sweet, it means the month will be good, and if, by terrible accident, you have a sour grape, you know that ... if the third grape you eat is sour, that March is not going to be one of your best months.

"And of course, I don't believe for one moment that a Spaniard or someone from Malta really believes that it will bring exactly bad luck, but I think you're doing something year in, year out, that your antecedents have done as well, and I think that's such an important part of human ritual."

Lawson says that wherever she looked, the general idea seemed to be abundance.

"When we're reveling in the holidays, it's really food for food's sake — abundance for its own sake to show just how wonderful it is to have this big feast — but at the New Year, the abundance is seen to be symbolic of the need, the request if you like, for abundance in the year to follow," she says. "So it's the only time I can think where having too much to eat is seen as almost a moral duty."

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