Here is a story that I wrote for a WorldNomads travel writing competition last year. The challenge was to write about understanding a culture through food and I just so happened to tell a story about ringing in the New Year in Vienna. This year I will be ringing in the New Year at Vienna’s Rathausplatz – sans pig head but with big hopes and dreams for the coming year.
Best Luck Pig
I first visited the Naschmarkt in Vienna, Austria when I was a little girl. My father’s hand in mine, I made wide eyes at long octopus tentacles draped on beds of ice and the colorful vendors who gestured and called at the passersby, eager to make a sale and a smile.
15 years later and the sensations are just the same.
The octopus tentacles still dangle ominously from their icy perch and the vendors, aggressive and kind as always, still beckon from countertops stacked high with dried fruits, round breads, and dark bottles of vinegar that bounce bright daggers of the December sunshine into my hungry eyes.
“You like the future?”
His question startles me from my memories.
He signals with his outstretched hand, reaching between low-strung meats and thick garlands of chili and garlic, to offer me a taste. A puckered piece of flesh encased in translucent jelly rests in his hand. He tells me it’s pig’s head and that real Austrians eat it on New Year’s Day to bring good fortune in the coming year.
“It’s a mistake to eat the chicken,” he tells me. “You must eat the pig, you must take the future,” he says assertively.
I ask him what is wrong with eating chicken on New Year’s Day – though I can’t remember with certainty if I’ve ever committed this particular crime, it’s very likely.
I learn that in Austria, chickens are bad luck because they scratch and claw at the ground, unearthing the past and quickly burying it again. In contrast, pigs reveal the unseen, their heads raised toward the future.
That’s news to me, I think, as I finally succumb to his aggressive sales pitch and take the small piece of quivering meat.
As I look closely at the slightly rosy and very gelatinous mass in my hand, I think about my own feet and where they have taken me and I can’t help but wonder where they will take me next. It seems to me that the future is equal parts feet and head, chicken and pig – but who am I to upset tradition?
I thank the man for his good tidings and brace myself; the future looks slimy and I wonder if I should chew it or simply gulp it down like an oyster. I make a face and the vendor, delighted by my unease, laughs, and I wonder if I’ve been tricked, but then I remember the marzipan pigs that wink in storefronts from Vienna to Salzburg and I know the truth: in the land of wiener schnitzel and wurst, the pig is the premier symbol of good luck – of best luck – for the New Year.
So I take a bite – and the future tastes surprisingly sweet.