Uvas de la Suerte, The Grapes of Luck

Traditions and superstitions go along hand in hand since the dawn of time. It’s not easy to trace the reasons for most of the things we do today out of habit. Sometimes we see these actions since we were kids and they give us comfort, unites us. And what better way to be comforted but with food. How would you explain holidays like Eid al-Adha (or as I learned it Kurban Bayramı) for Muslims, Rosh Hashanah for the Jewish, Christmas for the Catholics, Diwali for Hindus or any other religious holidays that involve food that I’m not aware of or can’t remember? All these traditions revolve around food. Almost all famous religions have a sort of lent to remind their followers of the importance of food. Because everybody eats. In order for the continuation of human beings, we require 3 basic things: Water, Food and Sex.

Our water drinking traditions have remained pretty much the same way since the last couple of decades, depending on where you are. The same thing goes for sex. The sperm still has to reach the egg pretty much the same way. However, among these 3, there is food that can change drastically depending on where you are. How we consume it changes, how we perceive it changes, how we value it changes.

I’m not a believer in superstitions or traditions. Neither in the ones I saw my grand family followed, nor in the ones I saw on TV. I am against all sorts of fortune-telling as I’m a boring pragmatist. However, I know how to appreciate a good story. If I’m given enough reason, true or false, I’ll join the tradition. Because I like the humanly thing about traditions. Culture is the biggest differentiator that separates us from our primate cousins that like bananas way too much for some reason. We, on the other hand, have diverse feelings about bananas. 

Unfortunately, culture doesn’t pass through generations or through genes, but it does through stories. I value the stories over everything. And the reason I’m writing this is to share with you all a tradition, a superstition, a story I’ve learned in Mexico. One of the many stories I hope to share in the future.

The belief/superstition:

You have to eat 12 grapes starting at midnight and with the toll of each bell, you have to eat another one. It is bad luck to eat all of them one by one. By the end of the last chime, you have to be done with all the grapes and swallow them to obtain good luck in the new year. Otherwise, you’ll get bad luck. 

The first theory:

It’s believed that eating grapes at midnight started in France to celebrate the new year along with drinking champagne. Around early 1900, Madrid’s bourgeoisie copied the tradition and they started doing it themselves. After a while, Mexico caught up and started following it. Not certain where the number 12 started in this theory.

The second theory:

The grape farmers in Alicante, Spain, had a great year of production in the year of 1909 that they needed a new channel to sell their unexpected amount of grapes. So, they came up with creating a tradition out of. Now, the important thing to know here is that December is not the season for grape harvesting. Unless if you’re a farmer in Alicante, producing Aledo grapes.

What’s up with Aledo grapes?:

In Alicante, there’s a way to produce the Aledo grapes that helps them to have thinner skin, which helps them to be chewed and swallowed faster. The farmers wrap their grapes with white paper bags in June and July as they ripen. This technique started around the 19th century to protect the grapes from a plague of vine moths. Although it started out to protect the grapes, the farmers soon realized that thanks to the grapes being wrapped against the outside world, the grapes held more of their aroma and their color, had more uniform shapes and most importantly it slowed their maturation which helped them to be harvested much later than the other grapes. This is why even though the harvesting period for grapes is in September and October, they were able to harvest in November and in December. This grape and the production method now have Denominación de Origen (designation of origin, or D.O.) just like Champagne.

This is why these grapes are the best option for this tradition as due to their thin skin, they are easily chewed. 

How does a tradition become a superstition?

I learned that they still follow this tradition in Spain, but I’ve learned about it in Mexico. Families gather around during new years and try to eat 12 pieces of grapes with each chime of the bell. It’s not easy to narrow this down as everyone I talked to have a different opinion about this. But one of the most common answers I’ve received is that each grape representing the months of the year and for each one that tastes sweet, the following month will be a good/lucky month. Well, this means that with each one that tasted sour, it’ll be an unlucky month. It’s almost like grape fortune-telling. That’s probably where the name comes from. Uvas de la suerte, the grapes of luck. 

While researching, I found another way to ‘play the game’ and that is to have wishes with each grape you eat. I think this one is quite difficult and unrealistic as you can’t really think of anything while trying to jam grapes into your mouth one by one each second.

How to improve your luck:

Traditions are great ways for businesses to thrive. It’s no different with this one. Nowadays, you can find peeled, sorted grapes without seeds in packages of 12 in supermarkets. Because as I’ve experienced yesterday at midnight, your biggest enemy for completing this game/tradition is the thick skin and seeds of the grapes.

Even though traditionally, all the grapes from the Alicante region is with seeds, recently due to the demand in the international market, they started producing more and more seedless grapes each year.

As I’ve said, I’m not a believer in superstitions or fortune-telling. However, I happen to like grapes, being from the Mediterranean and all, and I happened to buy some before knowing this tradition. They were red and from Peru and had thick skin but I decided to tag along and act if I actually believed in this tradition as the bells started to chime at midnight.

I took the first one and bite it. It exploded it’s sweetness in mouth. January is going to be okay.

The second one, a little sour but still sweet. I need to be careful in February.

The third, maybe the sweetest of them all. March is going to be awesome.

The fourth, very sour. I’m not leaving the house in April.

I don’t remember the fifth as I started to giggle. May is going to be… fun?

The sixth, I couldn’t stop giggling. 

The seventh, at this point it’s not about the tradition, I need to finish what I started.

The eight and my mouth if jammed with half-chewed grapes.

The ninth, I don’t even know why I’m doing this. I don’t care how September is going to be.

The tenth, this has too many seeds in it.

The eleventh, I. Hate. Grapes.

The twelfth and I’M SO GLAD I’M DONE WITH THIS.

Having a toast for the new year with our last grapes

It’s a fun tradition as it’s no easy task to eat 12 grapes in 12 seconds. We failed to do it in the required time. No matter how I felt, I wanted to use this tradition to start something new. 12 grapes, 12 new months. Here’s to a year of learning, living, enjoying and sharing. In my case, for sharing new food stories and traditions I learn.

Have a tasty new year!

Published by cookingupamuseum

Researching food and food cultures around the world. Museum curated by Can Kırış

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