Author Archives: justinross

German Fermented Vegetables

An interesting tradition my mother recalls from growing up is that when she and her family visited the (paternal) grandparents, the Rahenkamps, her grandmother would always serve some kind of relish or pickled item along with the evening meal.  Since the Rahenkamp family is of German descent, this is not surprising – one can hardly imagine German food without thinking of sauerkraut and pickled cucumbers.  However, Germany is only one of many countries where these types of foods exist.  In fact, most if not all cultures prepared and ate at least one of these items at one time or another.  Unlike the prosperous free world today where we think of these items as condiments that we add to our food because they are tasty, past cultures kept these foods, which were originally fermented, out of necessity.  Fermentation was a way to preserve foods for months without refrigeration, and to make foods that are hard on the bowels (like raw cabbage) more digestible.  Adding salt to vegetables to prevent mold growth, and allowing the bacteria and yeast in the local environment to take over, our ancestors could preserve items for long trips and cold winters.  The friendly microbes in the vegetables (or fruits or milk or other foods) break down the sugars and convert them to acids as a defense mechanism, producing a complex, sour flavor.  Eating such foods fortifies the immune system and gastrointestinal tract with beneficial bacteria, and the acid and enzymes released during fermentation aid in the digestion of the rest of the meal.  My informant, my mother, believes that her grandmother served these relishes as part of the tradition of using them for good digestion.  Unfortunately, most pickled items seen today are not fermented, but merely canned in vinegar (including those my great grandmother used).  They carry none of the health benefits and are sterile instead of crawling with friendly microbes.  The real fermentation process actually increases nutrients – sauerkraut, in fact, was used to prevent scurvy on long voyages across the Atlantic, due to its high vitamin C content and its ability to keep for months without spoiling.

  The Great Physician’s Rx for Health and Wellness, by Jordan S. Rubin, page 10, concurs that “Every sauce and condiment has its beginnings as a fermented food and throughout history has always been healthy.”  Several fermented foods are mentioned, including ketchup, which is credited to the Chinese, who began it as a fermented fish brine.

“Eat garlic and see it rise, Eat onions and forget what happened.”

My informant heard this proverb in Lebanon, his home country.  He did not recall the first time he heard it or who he heard it from.  He said it is simply an Arabic folk saying that he picked up from friends and family.
This is not the first proverb I have heard that speaks of onions and garlic as aphrodisiacs.  Unfortunately, my informant was uncertain of the exact meaning of the second line of the saying.  It could mean that eating onions causes one to lose his erection, or that onions cause poor memory.  My reaction was to interpret “forget it” as something like “it won’t be going away for days.”  In effect, “garlic works, but onions work better,” was my immediate interpretation.  On the other hand, it could be a mnemonic (much like our “yellow on black, venom lack; black on yellow, kill a fellow”) for remembering which of the two related herbs is the one that does the trick.  As it rhymes in Arabic (Toum, bikoum, Basal, hasal), the proverb incorporates an element of appropriateness, one of the features of most any joke; and obviously, the proverb is for humor and entertainment rather than any kind of edification or instruction.

Off-color Gambling Joke

A bank teller is greeted one day by a woman who wants to make a large deposit – approximately $3 million.  The woman’s demeanor and clothing do not suggest a person of great wealth, but for such a large amount of money, the teller thinks that the woman should be treated especially well, and that he should take extra steps to make her feel secure in making the transaction.  Thus he goes to get the manager.
When the manager returns, he greets the woman and she hands him the checks.  When he reads them, he is wide-eyed and asks, “Just out of curiosity, do you mind if I ask what business you run?  It seems you are very successful with it…”
She replies, “Oh, I made the money off of bets.”
“I made the money betting.”
“You mean betting, as in gambling, like at the casino?”
“No, I just make big bets with people.”
“Your friends?”
“Anybody.  For instance, I’ll bet you $100,000 that one of your testicles is blue.”
“What? Are you crazy?”
“No, I’m serious.”
The bank manager is wary, as obviously the woman has been successful with her betting, but on the other hand, he is absolutely certain that neither of his testicles is blue.  Just to double check, he unzips and takes a quick peek while standing behind the counter so no one sees it.  Sure enough, both sides are totally normal.  So he accepts the bet.  “Sure, I’ll take you up on your bet.”
“Alright, but we’ll need to wait until tomorrow to verify who wins the bet.  I want to bring in my lawyer to make sure there are no legal issues and that the loser pays the winner fairly.  I’ll bet you that after 2 o’clock tomorrow, one of your testicles will have turned blue.”
Confused and still somewhat shocked by the proposal, the manager thinks briefly about it and they agree to the bet.  He cannot imagine her being able to do anything to cause one of his testicles to turn blue.
When the manager awakes the next morning, he does another check.  Still normal.  At work, he nervously anticipates the arrival of the woman and her lawyer at 2 o’clock.  Every now and then, he takes another peek at himself to make sure both testicles are still normal.
At 2 o’clock, as planned, the woman and her lawyer arrive.  The manager quickly checks one more time, and taking them aside, he excitedly tells the woman that he has won the bet.
“Do you mind if I check to make sure?” asks the woman.
Nervously, the manager gives her permission, eager to receive his $100,000 reward.
As the manager unzips for her and she inspects, the lawyer suddenly begins to shout loudly in anguish and bang his head against the wall.
“Is he alright?” the manager asks.  “What’s the matter?”
“He’s fine,” she replies, “I bet him $1 million the other day that I could get the manager of this bank to drop his pants for me while he stood there watching.”


his was an Internet joke that my informant received from a friend of his.  My paraphrase is actually slightly less graphic than the original version of the joke.  It is a complex joke which could strike different hearers as having different thematic implications.  When I heard the joke, I picked up the idea of female outsmarting male and that of the lawyer being humiliated.
The joke also features multiple oxymorons, or “appropriate incongruities, ” which according to folklorist Elliot Oring, are the backbone of a joke’s humor.  The rich woman’s strange ability to make millions from betting is the first apparent incongruity.  This is followed by her assertion that one of the bank manager’s anatomical members is blue, an obvious falsehood.  Finally, the lawyer’s emotional eruption seems strange and unexplainable.  All of these incongruities are readily corrected and made appropriate, however, by the punchline, delivering a triple dose of somewhat off-color humor.

Recipe – Baccala (Cod Fish Stew)

The following recipe is from the Italian (paternal) side of my family.  The principal ingredient is salt cod or baccala.  This dish was served on Good Friday every year before Easter.  Though my paternal family, who are mainly Catholics, do not abstain from meat as part of the tradition of Lent any longer, their ancestors did.  Fish, however, was not counted among the other meats, and was allowed during Lent.  This recipe would have been one of the last served before the breaking of the fast on Easter Sunday.  According to my informant, the salting and aging of the fish improves the flavor.  This celebratory dinner likely helped to mitigate whatever sense of deprivation anyone (at least fish lovers) felt during the meatless fast.  My family also ate the same dish after the midnight Mass at Christmas (!!!).

Baccala (Cod Fish Stew)

1/4 c. vegetable oil in a Dutch oven

sliced onions:    4 large sliced
potatoes:     6 large peeled & cut in chunks
tomatoes:    2 large cans
1 piece of salted codfish which has been soaking 48 hrs. to get the salt out, changing the water frequently

Boil until potatoes are almost done.  Add the rest of the cod fish.

My informant added: “I buy around 1 lb. [of salt cod] at the Italian store.  This makes a great stew, but only I like it of my siblings!!”

UFO Sighting

Both my mother and sister claim to have witnessed a UFO several years ago while driving home from a Target store which is only about a mile from my house in Marietta, Georgia.  It was late and dark outside.  Through the front window, my mother saw a pair of white lights approaching the intersection outside of the Target.  She recalled that the object, which she definitely believed was a craft, was extremely low in the sky – she said maybe the height of a telephone pole.  She could make out a boomerang shape as it moved overhead, where to her amazement, it hovered in absolute silence.
While my mother will admit being uncertain as to the craft’s identity, she suggested that it was some form of secret military technology; in particular she indicated that the craft she saw resembled the stealth fighter she had seen in photographs.  This is one popular interpretation of unidentified flying objects, and it is a viable explanation for many such sightings, perhaps including this one.  Together with this idea of futuristic military (human) technology, it seems the idea of super-advanced alien technology forms the overwhelming majority of the public sentiment on the subject of UFO’s throughout the US and most of the free world.  Though many UFO witnesses (and many who hear second hand) ascribe a spiritual nature to their experience, these interpretations and others are far outnumbered by those that focus on the future and progress of the human race.  While my mother does not believe in aliens and simply gave an honest account of what she witnessed, people of other cultures would probably have provided vastly different explanations.

Catholic/Italian Headache Remedy

My paternal grandmother, who is of Italian heritage and a second-generation American, described a folk remedy against headaches that was practiced before her day.  She said “When a person had a headache, a friend would obtain a basin of water and sprinkle a few drops of olive oil on it, make the sign of the cross and recite a prayer.  That was to chase the evil spirits away.”  This was also used to make a person stop gossiping.  Obviously, this would have been practiced before her family emigrated and assimilated into American culture.  It is closely tied to the Catholic church and Catholicism’s deep roots in the nation of Italy.  My informant, while still a devout Catholic (as is most of her extended family), did refer to this practice as a superstition, and is far more likely to resort to Tylenol or Advil to relieve a headache than to attempt to cure it through any spiritual means.
The tradition itself seems to reflect elements of both Catholicism (sign of the cross, prayer) and more obscure or pagan religions (chasing away evil spirits), though perhaps my informant uses “evil spirits” synonymously with “demons.”  My informant’s description also seems somewhat vague and incomplete, as though it has been transformed through much telling and retelling over time.  My conjecture is that the tradition originated many centuries ago, well before the advent of modern medicine, out of the idea that demons or evil spirits are responsible for physical distress.  Certainly “magic superstitions,” under which classification this ritual falls, for curing ailments have existed well before even the Roman Catholic Church, and this one was likely Catholicized like many other pagan beliefs, superstitions, and even holidays.  As today’s society (at least in America) tends to favor scientific progress as the solution to medical problems (and a host of other problems), beliefs imported from worldwide have tended to fade out in this forward-looking culture.

UFO Sighting

My grandfather still recalls an incident that occured on a flight to Washington D. C. approximately fifty years ago.  He remembered being in the aisle seat, while the plane was approaching the airport at twilight.  Looking out the window, he saw an object that he describes as having a “saucer-like bottom” and a smaller inverted saucer on top.  It was off in the distance, passing through the clouds on a parallel path to the airplane.  He said he could not estimate its size, as he could not tell how far away the object was.  Along the edge of the saucer, he mentioned what he called lighted windows or lights.  He was not the only witness of the incident; he recalled a man whose name I will abbreviate F. B., in the seat next to him, that also saw the object.  After the incident was over, my grandfather and F. B. separately sketched their own impression of what the craft looked like, and both the drawings matched.  My grandfather maintains an agnostic view toward the object he saw in the sky.  He indicated that if he were a skeptic, he would try to rationalize it by calling it a reflection of the airplane itself in the clouds; however, he does not hold to this theory.  Rather, he said it excited him, as it occurred in the era when UFO’s were a big cultural phenomenon.
Are these UFO’s still a cultural phenomenon, or have they faded out?  Certainly sightings still occur widely and the subject matter is still quite popular; consider that the paranormal-oriented radio show Coast to Coast AM is the most popular late night talk-radio show in the world.  Why do UFO’s excite people so much in the modern world?  I propose that in America and other developing nations that engage in free enterprise and capitalism, the opportunity of technological innovation promotes a forward outlook on society, civilization, and life in general.  As airplane flights were becoming available to the masses in the mid-twentieth century (when my grandfather’s sighting occurred), UFO’s foreshadowed futuristic technology in the minds of a forward-looking people.  In other nations, which have more monarchic or dictatorial governments, and in less-developed countries, past-oriented outlooks on unidentified flying objects are more common.  Explanations usually involve ancient times or spirituality.  As free trade and global business continue to spread, however, the idea of beings and craft from other parts of the universe or from other dimensions of reality will probably continue to evolve into a global concept.

Italian Toast

“This wine is good and clear.
Good health to everyone.
Hope they bring to the cemetery the ones
who wanted to do away with it.”

This saying has been passed down through the paternal side of my family, who are all of Italian heritage.  My father’s grandparents were immigrants in the early twentieth century and were the last to speak Italian fluently in my father’s genealogy.  Some of my older relatives still remember this saying, however, and have said it on occasion though it is obsolete.  My father begins it when toasting to his family, but never gets past the first sentence.  As it involves Prohibition (1920-1933), its terminus post quem is 1920.  As recent immigrants, my great grandparents had left a country where good wine was plentiful and many people drank it daily, and were now faced with an across-the-board ban on every kind of alcoholic beverage.  According to my informant, the Italian men who immigrated near this time would continue to make wine that their families would drink, keeping it hidden in their cellars while brewing.  When the wine was finished and illegally drunk, a toast such as this would be offered.  This particular saying was either created or picked up by one of my father’s grandparents, and as my family has increasingly forgotten Italian (I know essentially none), the saying has remained, whether or not my relatives are aware that it is an anachronism.  Though it is obsolete, it reminds us of our common heritage and of my great-grandparents (now deceased) and their families.

Saudi Hiccup Remedy

Press a wet newspaper against the center of your forehead.


Who ever consults a medical textbook when they get a case of the hiccups?  There must be more methods of curing the hiccups (or at least attempting such) than for any other frustration that ails the human body, and it seems everyone has heard and tried at least one of these folk remedies.  I have heard of many supposed hiccup cures myself: scare the person with the hiccups, gulp down water rhythmically (seven times in one particular variant), rub your earlobe with your fingers (this one has actually produced results on me – perhaps there is some real nerve connection there or perhaps it is the placebo effect), drink sugar water, hold your breath.
Recently, my roommate (Lebanese) and I, along with a friend of his from Saudi Arabia (my informant), were driving to buy food, and my roommate began hiccuping quite forcefully.  Predictably, everyone began reciting the hiccup-cure ideas they had learned growing up.  Since my roommate was driving, he unfortunately had to suffer the hiccups (and did for quite some time) until they passed.  I asked the informant how he would cure the hiccups back where he used to live in Arabia, and his method was the most unusual I had ever heard.  He said his mother used to soak a newspaper and press it against his forehead.  The informant did not know why this worked, but claimed it did.  Perhaps the cold, wet sensation triggers a reset button in the nerves and stops the spasms, or again, perhaps it is just the placebo effect – and it is doubtful that any medical guide would ever confirm this for us or would address the effectiveness of these traditional remedies.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes

This special feast was a tradition that my father’s father observed with his family before he married.  According to my informant, this was the traditional meal of Christmas Eve.  After going to church to attend the midnight Mass before Christmas Day, my grandfather’s family would come home and eat Seven Fishes Dinner, quite a generous meal, during the wee hours of Christmas morning.  As my mother has always aimed to have dinner on the table around six or seven o’clock, I found this quite shocking, but my informant added that they did not arrive home until around one in the morning to enjoy the feast.  This feast obviously included several varieties of seafood, not limited to just fish.  My informant recalled salt cod, shrimp, and calamari/squid, as examples of items my great grandfather ate on Christmas morning.

Annotation/additional comments:
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in an article on Dec. 22, 2005 (, recognizes the Seven Fishes of Christmas Eve as an Italian tradition and describes a restaurant owning family’s variation of the feast.  Their meal includes “scrod florentine, breaded filets in a bed of spinach; anchovies olio, pasta cooked with oil, garlic and the salty fish; linguine with white clam sauce; fried calamari rings,” and “deep-fried smelts, decapitated and marinated in lemon.”  This is the meal they serve at home, not at the restaurant.  The family also serves the feast as a special at their restaurant.
In the article, the main chef adds that there are “many theories” regarding the meaning behind the Seven Fishes of Christmas Eve.  He claims, “It has always meant the Seven Sacraments,” adding that some families celebrate with twelve or even thirteen varieties of seafood, to represent the twelve disciples and Jesus.  He suggests that the arms of the squid may have symbolic significance (“how God reaches out to us”), and that “the eel was supposed to be the speed in which Jesus’ word travels through the world.”
Many changes in the feast have been made over the years in this family, including the removal of eel from the menu and of the heads from the fish, and obviously many changes have occurred in various communities since whenever this tradition began.  According to the newspaper article, this family also celebrates their feast after seven o’clock rather than midnight like my grandfather.  Regardless of the variations in religious symbolism and details of the menu, this traditional feast illustrates the role of food in uniting and defining a culture, in this case Italians or Italian Catholics.