Every New Year's Day, a small number of Japanese stop abruptly in the middle of supper, keel over, and die. The culprit in the choking deaths of these annual unfortunates, who tend to be elderly, is a glutinous substance called mochi. Made of pounded rice and usually sold in smooth, off-white bricks, mochi is a regular grocery store item in Japan.
It's also a fixture in the traditional soup known as ozooni that, alas, sometimes becomes both a person's first and last meal in the New Year.
Mochi is eaten at other times, mind you. Fans regard it as the very essence of chewy wonderfulness, with its delicate taste and dramatic elasticity. (Detractors use other language, such as "repulsive" and "like trying to chew a whoopee cushion filled with glue," but they're just wrong.)
A food that regularly kills would not seem to be the most auspicious thing to serve the in-laws at New Year (or would it?) but year after year, with the belief that traditional meals conduce to good fortune, millions of brave Japanese sit down to hot bowls of soup with mochi.
The night before, for the last meal of the old year, they will likely have eaten a dish of long, thin buckwheat noodles, as a means of promoting longevity.
To me, there's something ineffably charming about eating lucky foods at New Year.
We all have ritual meals -- for instance, rare is the late-November table that does not feature some simulacrum of turkey -- but whether we eat roast goose at Christmas or barbecue on Independence Day, there's usually no good-luck component.
Why cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving? Because cranberries grow in Massachusetts, where the pilgrims settled. Why frosted cake at birthday parties? Because it is delicious and children love it. Why potato salad, ever? Heaven knows.
But the New Year is exceptional. It almost demands from us a degree of magical thinking. We know it is a time of endings; we'll never see last year again, whether it was miraculous or horribilis. We are starting anew with our diet/exercise/drinking/smoking/not-yelling-so-much resolutions, whether or not in our deepest hearts we think we have a hope of keeping them.
So if ever there were a time for providential foods, it is at the turn of the calendar.
According to Lauren Salkeld's account of New Year's culinary practices on Epicurious.com, Danes sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on stewed kale, so as to eat what looks like folded money. Hungarians and Poles eat doughnuts, because they are shaped like rings (and are yummy). And Austrians adorn their tables with marzipan pigs, because these animals are thought to represent progress.
In our family, given the extremely narrow appeal of mochi (which I adore but which from another member of the household elicited the unfair whoopee-cushion characterization), we make it a practice at the start of every year to eat soup made with lentils and hotdogs -- coin-shaped foods, in other words, for prosperity. Next year, I think I'll serve it with a side dish of sugared kale.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.