News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 1, 2012

A recipe for luck in the new year

Consuming cabbage on New Year’s Day said to bring good fortune

TERRE HAUTE — Terre Haute is famous for cabbage rolls.

Granted, that distinction is based primarily on a line from the 1980 “Blues Brothers” movie about the “cabbage rolls at the Terre Haute Federal Pen.” Still, the town’s connection to those bundles of ground beef, sausage and rice, rolled up in cooked cabbage leaves and simmered in tomato sauce remains memorable — even if it’s fictitious — thanks to that film starring Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi.

Cabbage rolls are cooked in the kitchens of real-life Terre Haute households, too, especially on New Year’s Day.

The cooking and eating of cabbage (often paired with corned beef) on the first day of January is believed in various cultures to bring good luck for the year ahead. In the South, especially New Orleans, black-eyed peas are also considered to be a good-luck menu item for Day 1 of a new year.

Helen Anderson first heard of the tradition a half-century ago, and it wasn’t posed as an option.

“Fifty years ago, my mother-in-law told me we had to eat cabbage on New Year’s Day, because it brought you luck for the rest of the year,” Anderson explained. She’s been cooking cabbage rolls on Jan. 1 ever since.

The custom most likely came from Europe to the United States through immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, said Nan McEntire, an associate professor emerita of English at Indiana State University and director of the ISU Folklore Archives. Cabbage and black-eyed peas are consumed to bring wealth in the upcoming year.

“Folklorists have noted that the link between [cabbage and black-eyed peas] is an example of sympathetic or ‘imitative’ magic,” McEntire explained. “The cabbage resembles paper money, and the peas resemble coins. If you consume them, you may prosper financially. A similar belief leads to the practice of eating walnuts to increase your intelligence, as the interior of a walnut resembles the brain.”

Smart people eat cabbage, according to nutritional experts.

Cabbage is a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables, which includes broccoli, mustard, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi and bok choy, according to a summary compiled by the Iowa State University and cited on the University of California website. Ancient Romans considered cabbage consumption to be a remedy for gout, headaches and ingestion of poisonous mushrooms, the UC site said.

Modern-day researchers promote cabbage’s health virtues, too. The National Cancer Institute labels cabbage as a food with high cancer-fighting contents, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. One compound in cabbage protects against breast cancer, and another detoxifies carcinogens, the newspaper reported in 2009. One study also indicated cabbage eaters incur lower rates of colon cancer.

Gardeners at the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice at the Sisters of Providence in St. Mary-of-the-Woods planted three varieties of cabbage this year. Those veggies went to subscribers of the center’s food-distributing Community Supported Agriculture program, the sisters at the convent, and buyers at Terre Haute’s Downtown Farmers Market.

Some may consider cabbage as “old-fashioned,” said Candace Minster, garden manager at the center, “but people really like their cabbage.

“It’s been a really popular vegetable for us,” Minster added.

Nationally, its popularity has stabilized, thanks to expanded marketing of fresh-cut cabbage products such as coleslaw and salad mixes, according to the Iowa State summary. Still, the average American consumed 22 pounds of cabbage a year in the 1920s, but that dropped to 9.3 pounds per person by 2008.

If consumers consider the variety of cabbage-based foods, they might find more room in their diet for it. For example, nutritionally, “sauerkraut is even better than raw cabbage because it’s full of bacteria and cultures that are good for your digestive system,” Minster said. Sauerkraut is one of her favorite cabbage dishes, along with Irish colcannon (a mixture containing cooked cabbage and mashed potatoes).

Minster’s grandmother also served a version of cabbage rolls each New Year’s Day. She used a spiced pork favored by Minster’s Polish grandfather, perked up with cinnamon and other spices, wrapped up in cabbage leaves, stewed in tomato sauce and served with rice.

Anderson’s cabbage rolls feature similar ingredients. When her four children were still living at home, she made between 40 and 50 cabbage rolls each Jan. 1. “The kids loved them, and that’s why I had to make so many of them,” said Anderson. “And my husband [Lloyd] and I still do.”

The 73-year-old Terre Haute native makes a smaller batch, now that her children are grown.

Her secret to good cabbage rolls is freezing the head of cabbage before the process begins. Once thawed, the leaves become more limp, yet durable.

Then, she prepares a mix of a pound of ground beef with a quarter-pound of sausage, blending in a generous cup of cooked rice. She rolls the meat and rice combo into balls, salting and peppering each, and then wraps each in a cabbage leaf, securing it with toothpicks. The rolls are simmered for 45 minutes in a pot of tomato sauce (8 ounces), brown sugar (a quarter-cup) and cider vinegar (a quarter cup). (Anderson often puts the rolls in a pressure cooker, instead of a pot.)

That’s the recipe.

But does it actually bring good luck.

“I don’t know,” Anderson said, “but we still do it.”

Why take chances? At the very least, it tastes good and is good for you.

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