Author Archives: Sarah Powell

King Cake

One of my co-workers lived near New Orleans, so she told me about a food tradition in New Orleans during Mardi Gras known as a King Cake.

“It’s called a King Cake and it’s Mardi Gras and they bake it and you can get them everywhere. It’s like a pastry that has cinnamon in it, it’s like a big cinnamon roll, it’s in the shape of an oval, like a ring, and there’s icing on it and all these sprinkles, like green, yellow, and purple sprinkles for Mardi Gras. You bake the cake and once you get it there’s a little figurine, like a baby, about the size of your thumb and you stick it somewhere in the cake and then you cover it up and as you eat it, whoever gets the baby in their piece of bread has good luck for a year.

Q: Can you buy a cake that has a baby in it or do you have to make it?

“That’s the thing, it’s actually kind of a problem, because some people swallow the baby if you eat it too fast. So, when you buy the cake you can get them in there already, but most of the time if you get them at a Rouses, it’s like a chain grocery store, they’ll have them taped on the top of the box and they’ll give you the figurine and the person who buys it sticks it in there, so they know not to give that piece to a little kid…You frost it so you can’t see the hole, so I would stick it in and then mess the frosting around so you couldn’t tell where it was. And then you get good luck for a year.”

According to my informant, because the cakes are meant for Mardi Gras, you probably wouldn’t see those types of cakes during the rest of the year unless they were specially ordered. Also, it would be considered strange to eat a King Cake that didn’t have a baby inside, since the type of cake and the folklore surrounding the baby figuring go hand in hand.

For more information on this topic see:  Barclay, Eliza. “Is That A Plastic Baby Jesus In My Cake?” The Salt: What’s On Your Plate. NPR, 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 01 May 2014.

Calusa Protective Spell-Tampa

This piece of folklore came from my co-worker, who grew up in Tampa, Florida. Although he did not know much about the history of the Calusa Indians, what he did know was the legend in Tampa that the Calusa Indians cast a spell to keep them safe. Since it seems to be working, many people still believe in the legend. The Calusa Indians lived in the area where my co-worker lived, so the people in his area knew a little more about them, whereas people in other parts of Tampa might not be as familiar with the legend.

“There’s this urban legend in Tampa, where I’m from, about the Calusa Indians who were destroyed by the Seminoles, and it’s a whole history that I don’t know much about. But, there’s a legend that this chief put a spell over the Tampa area protecting it from hurricanes. So, when Hurricane Andrew came through and destroyed all of Florida, it was weird that Tampa was mostly unaffected. In recent history, with Katrina, it was supposed to go directly at Tampa and then a day before it was supposed to make landfall it just veered off towards Louisiana. In the last 20 years all of the really strong hurricanes have been forecasted to go at least somewhat into Tampa and none of them have ever hit Tampa. It’s really weird. We also get the branches of the storms that aren’t bad, so a lot of people believe that the Calusa Indians are protecting.”

Q: Will people say specifically that it’s because of the Calusa Indians?

“I mean, my mom would always say it and there were other people who believed it too…at least a lot of the people I knew would be like ‘oh it’s that old Indian tribe’ or something along those lines”

Whippoorwill Road

I collected this folklore from my friend who grew up in New Jersey, in Monmouth County. She told a story about a road near her county (she believed the road was either in Middletown or Navesink)

“In my town in New Jersey, well not my town, but my county essentially, there’s a street that we call Whippoorwill, I believe on a map it would come up as Cooper Road, but it’s called Whippoorwill. And it’s a dirt road behind a lot of farm type areas, a lot of small horse farms and stuff, but it’s also off a major highway which is kind of strange…

So, teenagers have a tradition of driving down Whippoorwill at night and the rumor is that weird things always happen when you drive there. People will drive down it, and it’s narrow enough that it’s almost a one-way, so a really common thing that people say happens is that you’ll park, just to look around or to scare the crap out of whoever’s in the car with you, and you’ll sit there and people say that cars will come and facing you will turn on and off their lights and do creepy things and then turn around and disappear.

Other people have said that the reason people used to get creeped out by the road is because through the woods that surround you on Whippoorwill, if you walked through you would end up at a house that used to be a Ku Klux Klan meeting house. Don’t know if that’s actually true…but people would claim they saw scary things or people in hoods or scary looking people or maybe like a fire in a distance and it was assumed that you were possibly stumbling upon a KKK meeting, which is obviously a very frightening thing to stumble upon.

I’ve driven down it multiple times with multiple different people and it’s usually that whoever’s driving the car is usually the one in control and they park, shut off their lights to scare whoever else is in the car, I’ve seen people get out and run through the woods to scare the people in the car and things like that.”

Q: How do you decide to go down that road?

“It’s kind of one of those things where you know, you’re like 17, 18, you just got your license and you want to drive but you don’t have anywhere to go, so it’s like nighttime and there’s no parties or anything, so you say, oh let’s drive down Whippoorwill. So someone in the car is obviously going to protest and say please, no, don’t take me there and then you have to take them there to scare them”

There a few different types of folklore happening in this piece. First, the behavior of the teenages driving down the road seems like a folk ritual or folk game, since there are certain kinds of things that are supposed to happen on the road, and those things are passed between the different teenagers who take each other there. The belief about the KKK meeting house is a kind of legend, since it might be true, but it would be difficult to verify or prove it.

 

Seven Fish Dinner

I gathered this piece from my friend who comes from a very Italian family. Her parents family’s are both from Naples, her mom’s side is from Mirabella and her dad’s side is from Benevento. Even though her parents weren’t born in Italy, Italian culture is still very important in their family, and keeping up traditions such as this Christmas Eve dinner are very important to her parents, especially her father.

“I come from a very Italian background. My paternal grandmother was born in Italy and then came here, so my father is first-generation. My mother’s grandparents were from Italy…so they come from a very traditional Italian background. And one tradition that we’ve always followed in my family is that on Christmas Eve you are supposed to have the “Seven Fish Dinner” which means that you should be having seven different types of fish for your Christmas Eve meal. Every year my family would invite all of our family and friends over and my dad would spend about two or three days slaving away in the kitchen to cook all these different things which included lobster, probably cooked multiple ways, clams, shrimp…scungilli salad, which is octopus salad, a type of fish which I am not remembering what it’s called…and other things that I can’t remember.”

Q: So is this something your parents got from their parents?

“Yeah, it’s an Italian tradition. My family is not the only one’s that ever done it or heard of it. I know my dad keeps a lot of his Italian heritage in memory of his grandparents who he spent a lot of time with….’This is what my grandparents did so this how we’re going to do’ kind of a thing”

Food folklore tends to revolve around family and family traditions, and this is no exception. The informant learned about this through participating in a family tradition, which was kept by her parents in order to honor their Italian grandparents. Participating in the tradition becomes a way to keep the tradition alive and maintain the culture.

The Jersey Devil

This piece was collected from my friend who grew up in New Jersey. To her, it wasn’t a very important part of her life, but it was well-known where she was from because it’s one of the most popular pieces of folklore from New Jersey.

This is how she explained it to me:

“I’m from New Jersey, and there’s a southern part of the state called the Pine Barrens, it’s filled with trees, it’s a very forest-y area. And for years and years it’s been said that there’s the Jersey Devil that lives in the pine barrens, hence the name the New Jersey Devils, the hockey team… there’s ben songs written about it…stories written about it. There are lot of versions of what it actually is. Some say it’s an actual devil or it’s more like a beast, like an animal. It’s kind of like a yeti or something, to this day people still say they see when they go to the pine barrens. I think I learned about it honestly in school when we learned about New Jersey myths, I’m pretty sure it was mentioned, and the only way is just through word of mouth”

Even though the Jersey Devil is very popular, there’s still not a consensus on what it looks like (or even what it is exactly) So, the legend can be interpreted differently by each person. However, it has been incorporated into things like sports teams, where it might become less folkloric because it would be portrayed in a certain way and would probably be trademarked. Also, the informant described it as a New Jersey myth, however, it would more accurately be categorized as a local legend or folk belief.

“Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board”

This folklore was collected from my mother, who told me about a slumber party ritual she would do with her friends when she was younger. So, this would have taken place in the late 1970s, early 1980s.

“At slumber parties with pre-adolescent girls, there were a couple of stories, rituals that were passed on from generation to generation. One was a story that the group of 5-8 girls could lift one of the girls up over their heads by using only their fingertips. In order for this to work, all the girls in the group had to concentrate solely on the task at hand and chant ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ over and over. The girl who was subject to the lifting started off lying flat on her back on the floor. The other girls encircled the subject and puts their hands underneath her, touching only with their fingertips. As the chanting beings, the group attempts to lift the subject up off the floor until she is suspended above the heads of the others. If this was unsuccessful (as it always was), it was due to one or more members of the group lacking proper concentration or belief…. There was always the accompanying story that someone had succeeded before… or someone’s older sister had told the tale of a successful lift”

I had never heard of this sleepover game/ritual before, so it might be specific to the area/time period my mother grew up in. Or, perhaps it became less popular because it never worked. Another slumber party ritual my mother mentioned to me was the “Bloody Mary” chant, which is well-known (I heard about it from other kids when I was younger) so it was interesting that this wasn’t a familiar piece of folklore within my generation.

 

The Ghost of Spangenberg

This piece was told to me by my co-worker who went to high school in Palo Alto, CA. At the high school there was a large theater, called the Spangenberg theater, where the theater students would perform shows during the years. The rumor around the theater was that it was haunted by a ghost. My informant learned the rumor from an older theater student. She felt that the ghost story was both fun (to pass on to a new generation) but also slightly scary because of the small chance that it might be true.

“In our high school we used to have this rumor circling around the theater group that there’s a ghost in Spangenberg. So, we kind of ran with it. It wasn’t written anywhere, we just kind of passed it off as… generation to generation within the theater community at our school. Basically if anything went wrong we kind of just blamed it on the ghost. Supposedly there was a backstory to this ghost, about someone committing suicide in the building, I don’t know much about that, but things that happened were like: I was pretty sure I turned those lights off and I’d be the first one in the building the next morning and the lights were on and I know no one else was in there because the building was locked and I was the last one out the night before, so yeah… things would just come up and terrify you occasionally. There would be random noises, that was terrifying up in the rafters. I didn’t like going there by myself and we just kind of blamed it on the ghost, and because of that if I was ever there last, by myself at night I wouldn’t just be there, you know, taking my leisurely time making sure everything was locked up. No. I would be sprinting. I wanted out, immediately.”

Q: Do you remember who told you about the ghost of Spangenberg? How did they tell you about it?

“It was more of a reference, like, ‘Ooh, watch out the ghost of Spangenberg might mess it up for you” Or ‘don’t let him catch you’ or just kind of like, mocking. And I kind of feel like that’s how I passed it off, too.”

Q: Did you try to scare freshman with it?

Yeah, obviously. It’s what we do. No shame

Q: So, what would you say to them?

The first time I would ever mention it to them I would try not to scare them, actually, just like ‘Oh that’s super weird, it was working yesterday. It’s because of the ghost.’

 

It’s interesting that this ghost doesn’t have a name or any method of identification (even a gender) because generally this kind of “haunted building” folklore would come with some sort of a back story to add to the believability. However, it sounds like the story was believable enough even though the ghost didn’t have any special features.

Reincarnation

This piece was performed by my co-worker. She was born in India but moved to the United States when she was three months old. Her mother comes from Delhi, but her father’s family is originally from the area that is now Pakistan. She told me this story of learning about reincarnation from her grandmother and learning that her family believed that she (the informant) had been reincarnated.

“So, when I was in middle school… I don’t know it came up but someone asked me once if I believed in reincarnation and I was like, actually I don’t know that much about it even though I am Indian. So I asked my grandma about it when I went home and she was like, ‘Actually we believe that you were partially reincarnated.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa this is really cool!’ So I asked her how she knew and she told me basically after my great-grandpa died (so her grandfather) after he died she did a little prayer, and there’s this whole ritual that you do in India….Basically she did this prayer for about a week, and at the end of the week you have this dream that tells you, or shows you what the person who you’re asking about is doing. In the dream, if you see them praying at a temple, or a mandir as you would say in Hindi, it means that they’re going to stay in the afterlife. Their soul is not coming back, but if you see them, I don’t know, doing something else that would hint they were coming back, they were coming back. My grandmother did it, I think twice, for my great-grandfather and then he, the first time, was definitely staying there. And then later on, when my mom was pregnant with me it was actually…somehow he ended up coming back, supposedly. The reason why it was weird is because this only works, you can only tell if someone is going to be reincarnated if someone else in the family becomes pregnant within six months of the person dying. So, the person died, grandma tried the thing the first time, didn’t work out. but she tried it again later, I think, and then that time… the first time it said he wasn’t coming back,  the second time he wasn’t but it was so close to me being born that we thought, maybe he is. And so when I was growing up, and the signs of reincarnation supposedly are within the first five years of life, my grandma said I used to walk exactly like him and that’s a little sketch maybe that doesn’t mean that much, you could walk like a bunch of different people and it’s not that really specific, but he had such a specific gait that they thought, wow, he’s in her, I guess. And I had a bunch of other things, like the way I would talk, it would be just like him.”

Q: Is it common to try multiple times to see what will happen?

“I don’t think so, my grandma just was curious. I think that was the first time she had ever done it, too. I know there was little bit of confusion when she interpreted, in fact I think that may be why she did it the second time because of the interpretation, and she wasn’t sure.”

 

Even though reincarnation is a fairly well-known kind of folklore, this piece is interesting because it shows that folklore doesn’t necessarily work the same way every time. The informant’s grandmother didn’t seem very experienced with the rituals, so she had to try a second time to make sure she got it right. However, that didn’t make the ritual any less legitimate, as her family still believes she was reincarnated.

 

The Woman With The Purple Dress

This piece was performed by a USC student I work with whose hometown is Salt Lake City, Utah. They originally heard this story from their friends in Utah, where it is used as a ghost story in order to scare people.

“The story of the woman with the purple dress. There was an old train station down in Utah and the building is still there… supposedly haunted by this woman in a purple dress and the story is this: she was waiting for her train and it was a cold day out and she was wearing this purple dress with no jacket or sweater or anything.

And so the conductor says, ‘Well, here i have an extra jacket. I’ll give it to you, let you borrow it. I’ll come by your place later. Your house is on the train stop or whatever…. And I’ll get it from you’

She says, ‘Thank you so much’ ”

‘So, what’s your name?’

She gave him her name and she was on her way with the jacket. A couple days later the conductor went to get his jacket. He couldn’t find it. He went to the address that she gave him and he couldn’t find the woman. He went to this little grave area out by, like a family gravesite, like a farm house and there was family grave site. He went to the grave and noticed that the woman’s name was on the grave stone. So, supposedly it’s still haunted by her.”

This folklore sounds a lot like a “friend of a friend” story, since my co-worker couldn’t remember specific details, like the name of the station or where exactly it was located, but he had heard the story from a friend. The details that are passed from person to person, like the color of the woman’s dress, feels very arbitrary, but probably helps make the story sound more legitimate.

Midsommar

My friend was born in Sweden to a Swedish father and American mother, but moved to the United States as a child, so she sat down with me and told me about the different holidays that are celebrated in Sweden. Some were holidays she had celebrated frequently, while others we less important to her, but she still knew about from her family. Since midsummer includes children in the celebration, she had fond memories of past holidays in Sweden.

“Then we have midsommar, which is midsummers, it’s like the middle and it’s usually the summer solstice and that’s where it’s like the typical maypole, it’s almost like a cross with two rings and kids will have strings and dance around the maypole. And that’s also fertility”

Q: Have you celebrated this?

“I’ve done it ever since I was little. Usually it’s like the entire community gets together and there’s a central maypole for that community. So it’s not like it’s a fair, but everybody comes out and they picnic. And what the girls are supposed to do, is you’re supposed to collect seven different types of wildflowers and you make wreaths, like crowns, that you wear and you wear it all day and the girls usually wear white dresses and you’re supposed to jump over five different fences, and what you usually do is eat strawberries, strawberries and cream are like, in season, so you usually have strawberry cake and stuff like that. And you’re outside and you play games and it’s really, really fun. There’s specific songs and dances that you do while you dance around the Maypole. One of them is små grodorna, which means little frogs, and you jump over people…it’s for kids but it’s really, really cute. But when you get older, it’s like you drink and, but everybody still dresses up and it’s really pretty. But what girls are supposed to do is you put the wreath under your pillow and then you dream about the man you’re going to marry. I really remember actually making the crowns, because my mom was really good at doing it, because you have to like, braid, because they’re like wildflowers, you don’t buy something, you braid the flowers to create these really pretty things. It’s super fun and it lasts throughout the day”