SALUTÈ: Toasting the season


New Year’s toasts and traditions have come a long way since the ancient Romans dropped burnt bread in wine to get rid of undesirable tastes.

STORY: Mary Ann DeSantis

Raising a glass and offering a toast seems to be more prevalent during the holidays than any other time of year, except for maybe weddings. Holiday cheer often begins with a simple word, and whether you realize it or not, most toasts have something to do with health. After all, who doesn’t want to start the New Year in good health?

For instance, take “Salute!” There is a good reason this regular column in Style was named Salute. In Italian, the word means “To health,” as does the Spanish equivalent “Salud!” The French say, “A votre santé” and the Russians declare, “Za vashe zdorovye.”  Both mean “to your health.”

Toasts to health seem fitting as the health benefits from moderate wine consumption — defined as one to two four-ounce glasses a day by the American Heart Association — are numerous. Wine was announced to be heart healthy in 1992 when news of the “French Paradox” led researchers to observe that the French had lower incidences of heart disease despite their high-fat diets. A glass of red wine with the fatty foie gras seemed to keep cholesterol levels in check and reduce the risk of heart attacks. Since then, new studies from around the world pop up every week or so touting some new benefit from drinking wine. A glass of red wine indeed has a long list of beneficial ingredients, including phenolics that help prevent bad cholesterol from forming and act as natural blood thinners, polyphenols which protect the cardiovascular system, and flavonoids — the antioxidants that have anticancer properties.

The term toasting didn’t begin with health in mind, though. Rather it started in ancient Rome when Romans dropped a piece of burnt bread into wine glasses to temper the undesirable tastes or excessive acidity of wine. The charred bread made the wine more palatable. Shakespeare’s Falstaff even said “put toast in it” when requesting a jug of wine in The Merry Wives of Windsor. At some point, the practice evolved to drinking in honor of fallen warriors by the Moguls in India and the Vikings in Scandinavia. The Greeks found it beneficial to offer toasts to assure their friends and comrades that they weren’t about to be poisoned. The host took the first swallow as a symbol of friendship to let guests know it was safe to do likewise.

Along with holiday toasts have come some unusual traditions that have showcased wines, as well as foods. In the U.S., loud parties on New Year’s Eve with lots of champagne and high caloric hors d’oeuvres seem to be the norm for most folks. However, in many parts of the world, the evening is simpler and spent with close family and friends.

One of the most interesting New Year’s celebrations happens in Spain, where the Fin de Año begins with a family dinner of traditional foods that include shrimp, prawns, and lamb. At midnight, each person eats exactly 12 grapes — one for each chime of the clock. This tradition began in 1909 when Alicante grape growers in Spain’s Valencia region thought it would reduce the large surplus of grapes from that year’s harvest. Today, the 12 grapes have become synonymous with the New Year and good luck. Toasts are made with Spanish Cava or cider.

In Italy, dinner is eaten with parents and friends and often includes zampone (pig’s trotters or feet) and lentils, dishes that date to the 1500s. At 8:30p.m., the Italian president reads a New Year’s message to the nation and fireworks follow at midnight. When the bells toll at midnight, one spoonful of lentil stew per chime is eaten to bring good fortune. The round lentils represent coins. Toasts are made with a glass of Italian Prosecco sparkling wine.

New Year’s Eve in France is known as “La Saint-Sylvestre,” in honor of the Pope who served from 314 to 335 A.D. during the time of Constantine the Great. There is no particular link between Saint Sylvestre and the new year except that Dec. 31 is his feast day. Nevertheless, the French usually celebrate with small intimate dinners with friends. Those feasts often include foie gras and, of course, red wine. Toasts, however, are made with French Champagne and are followed by kissing under the mistletoe at midnight, which is a New Year’s custom in France rather than a Christmas tradition.

No matter what your tradition is for the holidays, remember that moderation is the key to good health. Stay safe during the holiday season by drinking responsibly, and may your 2014 be an exceptional year filled with happiness, good fortune, and healthy living. Saluté!

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