The first informant is a 65-year-old man who grew up in Southside Chicago and Baltimore with his parents and two brothers. He is a father, grandfather, patent attorney, musician, and inventor.
The second informant is a 95-year old man who grew up in Davenport, right near downtown with his parents and two brothers. His father came over from Russia and owned a grocery store in Davenport. He now lives in Skokie, IL with his wife and caretaker. He has three sons and 9 grandchildren.
Informant 1: “Your great, great-grandmother on your Grandma’s side was the pioneering movie theater operators.”
Informant 2: She was the one who started popcorn in theaters.”
Informant 1: “Well, it was rumored she was.”
Informant 2: “No, that was a definite.
Informant 1: “Umm,”
Informant 2: “And, what happened was there was a theater chain that was in Davenport. And it was very profitable, and the owner found out that she was doing it, and he started doing it and told the other theater chains. I read something historical somewhere about popcorn and they’re giving that theater chain credit, when they actually copied it from Grandmother.”
This particular interview made me think of the film we watched early on in the semester, Whose Song is It Anyway.
It’s an origin story—or an attempted, alleged origin story—of popcorn in movie theaters. Informant 2 was insistent that his grandmother had in fact been the pioneer of movie theater popcorn and got somewhat heated when Informant 1 suggested that it might be rumor that she actually did this. Informant 2’s account was closely concerned with credit and business—the idea of the underdog, or the small business, versus the big chain.
This interview concerns originality and relates to our discussions about originality and society’s—in particular, American society—obsession with it. Copyright falls into this arena, as well, a legal way of giving credit, and in doing so, giving ownership, to one individual or corporation for something that very well has been the product of several minds and over the span of several years.
The informant is 20-years old and finishing her sophomore year at USC. She is a Business and Music Industry Major, is involved in several on-campus organizations such as Concerts Committees. When she’s not doing her school work or work for clubs, she enjoys running, taking hikes, and going to concerts. She grew up in Washington with her mom, dad, and two younger sisters.
Informant: “I guess something I learned from other people would be jump roping rhymes. I was super into jump roping with my friends when I was in elementary school. Even into middle school we would play Double Dutch. It’s just an easy thing to play—jump-roping. Like all we needed to have with us was the rope.”
Interviewer: “Do you have a favorite rhyme you want to share?”
Informant: “I wouldn’t say I have a favorite…But one I think is really weird. Haha. Probably the most bizarre rhyme that circulated around is one about Cinderella. We would sing:
‘Cinderella dressed in yellow
Went downstairs to kiss her fellow
On the way her girdle busted,
How many people were disgusted?’
And then you’d count off 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. Until whoever was jumping rope tripped. And then the song would start all over again.
Thoughts: It’s funny that my informant learned this Cinderella rhyme for jumping rope in Washington because I learned the same one in the suburb of Chicago where I grew up. I remember seeing some kids recite it while jump roping, but where I heard it the most was in the figure skating community. I figure skated for ten years and when we had shows, all of the younger kids would convene in a sort of backstage/holding area when we weren’t on the ice. We used to play all sorts of games to pass the time and one game was a one where everyone sat in a circle with their hands touching and we would go around the circle as we sang this song slapping the person’s hand next to us, and when we got to 10, the person whose hand was slapped got out. This seems like a good example of how folklore travels, or of polygenesis, and how it attains different uses and practices as it is spread.
The informant is a 58-year old woman from Trinidad, who has lived in the United States for 45 years. She was raised by her parents in Trinidad and lived in a house with her parents, grandparents, and nine siblings. She attended primary school, and then began working as a housekeeper and nanny. She loves cooking, mainly without recipes or set amounts of any ingredients, having learned her recipes “from my mom and aunts and from trial and error.” The following is what she said when I asked about her step daughter’s wedding a few years ago, of which I was in attendance.
Informant: “Abby’s wedding was a big one. Oh gosh, it feels so long ago now!”
Interviewer: “It was beautiful!”
Informant: “It was…”
Interviewer: “Do you remember going dress shopping with mom and me before? Can you tell me about it?”
Informant: “Yes, yes. Well for a Muslim wedding you need to have the proper dress. It is not like American weddings where anything you wear is fine. Because if you come to the Muslim wedding and you are dressed improperly, you may be asked to leave. And more than that, it is important to the bride and groom that you wear the proper clothes.”
Interviewer: “What would be improper to wear?”
Informant: “Something short, anything that shows a woman’s legs would be improper. Respect—modesty—is very very important in Muslim religion and culture.
Interviewer: “I understand. Can you tell me more about where we went to get the outfits for Abby’s wedding?”
Informant: “We went to Devon Avenue, a whole street of Indian stores, and we went into the best one to buy a saree. You tried on so many! They all looked so cute on you. We picked a colorful one, I can’t remember if it was purple or blue…
Interviewer: “It was purple!”
Informant: “Yes, it was. And then for your mom we got a green and maroon one.”
Interviewer: “Does anyone wear black sarees? Or white ones?”
Informant: “No. Everyone, at weddings is supposed to wear colored sarees. That is what’s done at weddings. The varna—that means color—means something always! Red is for the bride. Abby wore red. Colorful sarees make for a happier, more festive wedding.
It doesn’t say anywhere in the Quraan that guests at a Muslim wedding are required to wear colorful sarees, or sarees at all for that matter. But it is a custom—a rule, almost—that guests do so. This reflects the modesty of the culture that is expected and has continued to be important to the Muslim people, especially in rituals. While all Muslims do not dress modestly all the time, it is expected that they do so when weddings and other religious rituals take place.
The colorfulness of the sarees at the wedding ceremony, aside from making photos beautiful and bright, makes the ceremony a very festive event. Interestingly, my informant told me that red is often the color of the bride in Muslim weddings, versus the Christian and Jewish white-dress custom. Red is bright and bold; it symbolizes fertility. It is fitting that this would be the color a bride wears on her wedding day, if what she wears is to symbolize the step she is embarking on in her life.
The informant is an 18-year old college freshman at USC majoring in environmental studies and geology. She is of Irish and English descent, and when she is not at USC lives in Las Vegas with her parents and two siblings. I asked her about what her family does to celebrate Christmas. She said although her family is “not very religious,” they do have a Christmas ritual they do each year.
Informant: “I can tell you what I do for Christmas, I guess. So, we always, in the morning…Well, the night before we have to make a casserole. I know it sounds disgusting.
Interviewer: “What’s in the casserole?”
Informant: “I can ask my mom for the recipe.” [Recipe provided beneath interview.]
Interviewer: “Did she learn it from anyone, or was it a recipe from a book?”
Informant: “Both my parents learned it from their parents. We have to make the casserole the night before. And so then in the morning, we’ll wake up…so all the kids have to stay upstairs and we have this landing you can look over, but we aren’t allowed to look over it or go downstairs until my dad has his video camera and then he records us all coming down the stairs together. We go in a circle after our presents are sorted and one person opens and then the next, etc. We go through the whole thing until everyone is done, and one of my parents will put the egg casserole in. Once it’s ready, we eat that, and we just go and play with our presents. It’s so good, it’s like breakfast food, called egg casserole. It’s so good.”
2 pieces of bread (need to rip apart in small bite sized pieces)
1 pound of hot sausage
1 cup of mile
2 pinches of salt
2 pinches of pepper
Dry mustard (No exact amount, but around the same amount as the salt and pepper)
Brown the sausage. Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
Place in baking dish over night.
Next morning—preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook for 45 minutes. It might need an extra 15 mins. Closer to one hour.”
My informant told me that it was a casserole passed down to her mom, as opposed to some other treat, because in Ireland—where her family is from (my informant described herself as “very Irish”)—they were very poor and as there was a lack of food, casseroles were something that could be thrown together using whatever they had. I thought it was super interesting that my informant perked up when she talked about he casserole and said multiple times how good it was. Food is fuel, but it is much more to people. There are emotional connections to food—memories of specific times or holidays or family members associated with certain foods—and that is passed down through families from one generation to the next is one example of this importance.
The informant is a 20-year old Jewish student attending USC. She was born in Venezuela but has lived in Miami since she was eight years old. She is majoring in Engineering. The information she shared with me is about Jewish funeral custom.
Informant: “Everyone goes to the funeral home or the synagogue, or wherever the funeral is taking place. There is a service; the Rabbi says some prayers in Hebrew and in English and some kind words about the deceased. Then usually some family members will speak about the person who has passed.”
Interviewer: “What kind of stuff do they say?”
Informant: “Well it varies. Sometimes they will talk about the person’s accomplishments, sometimes they will tell funny stories about the person, or their fondest memories with them. I was at a funeral about a month ago where one of the deceased’s grandchildren read a portion of a school project she had written about her grandma when she was a kid. She had interviewed her grandma for the project. It was really cool.”
Interviewer: “That sounds really cool. What happens next?”
Informant: “Well, everyone goes outside where the burial takes place. I don’t know if it is Jewish tradition everywhere, but at least at the weddings I’ve been to, there are shovels around the burial site, and everyone who wants to can shovel some earth onto the grave. It’s really beautiful. Then there is a shiva.
Interviewer: “What’s the shiva?”
Informant: “The shiva is when everyone—the family and friends of the deceased’s family—goes to someone close to the person who has passed’s house. There is lots of food and drink (usually non-alcoholic though) and people eat and talk. It’s a big gathering as a sort of celebration of the person’s life and as a way to comfort the family.”
Often rituals surrounding death double as celebrations of life and a reason for social gathering. Death is a rite of passage and like other rite of passage rituals, it is a rite of transition, mainly for the family and friends of the deceased. The shivas I’ve been to aren’t typically sad events. The funeral itself is generally a somber, teary-eyed event, but shivas I’ve attended often involve a lot of conversing and even a good-deal of joke-telling.
The informant is a 66-year old mother, step-mother, former poverty-lawyer, property manager/owner, and is involved in many organizations and non profits. She was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was four years old. She grew up in California, where she also attended college and law school. She lived in the suburbs of Chicago for a short while with her husband and family, and now they live in Pacific Palisades, California.
Informant: “Back when I was a kid, with your Opa [the word for “Grandpa” in Dutch] every Passover, we would leave a glass of wine—in our most ornate wine glass—for Elijah, like we do now, but we would also all go around the table after the meal and have to tell a little anecdote about Elijah.
Interviewer: “Can you explain who Elijah is?”
Informant: “Elijah is a Jewish prophet. It’s tradition to leave a spot for him at the table at Passover so that if he passes through he will stop at your house and give you good luck and health. So we would go around and all have to tell a short made-up story about him. And it was silly that we did this—I don’t know anyone else who did this, but I know that my dad always said that he had done it with his family at their seders growing up.”
I’ve participated in the Elijah ritual myself, so I can speak from a first-person perspective as well as commenting on my informant’s information. In my opinion, leaving a glass for Elijah symbolizes hope, for the future and for the Jewish people—a people historically oppressed and systematically pushed down. Leaving a glass and/or opening a door for the prophet, Elijah, to come is a way of leaving the door open to positive things to come. As it is a prophet that the glass of wine is left for, this custom can also be seen as a seeking of knowledge or insight.
Informant is a 20 year old college student at the University of Chicago. She is a creative writer, activist, and political science major. She grew up in Highland Park, Illinois with her two parents and two younger brothers.
Informant: “So here in Chicago, we have a thing called snow. It actually gets quite cold if you remember.”
Interviewer: “I remember!”
Informant: “Just wanted to remind you since now you live in sunny, always blue-skied, 70 degree Cali. Anyways, there are times that so much snow accumulates that school is canceled. Not very often, but every now and then. Usually ever year, but sometimes just once every two or three years.”
Interviewer: “I totally remember those! They were the best…”
Informant: “They were! Do you remember what we all used to do in the hopes there would be a snow day?”
Interviewer: “Sort of, but not entirely.”
Informant: “Okay, let me refresh your memory. We would put a spoon under our pillow before going to bed—some people put it under their bed, and some people didn’t put a spoon but a fork—and that was supposed to make a snow day happen. But not just out of the blue. IT had to already be pretty snowy, or supposed to snow heavily.”
Interviewer: “Do you remember who told you to do that? Or who told you that worked?”
Informant: “No specific person that I remember. I think we all just sort of knew to do it. Like everyone talked about it working, or having worked.”
I can’t figure why a spoon was the object placed under one’s bed or one’s pillow to conjure a snow day, but I do remember doing this once in the hopes of a snow day. I can’t say for sure if it was my having placed the spoon under my bed or Mother Nature, but we did in fact have school canceled the next day…
I actually googled the practice and found several articles as well as some other ways to conjure snow days! For more snow day “magic,” see http://www.grandhaventribune.com/article/strange-grand-haven/265096.
The notion of “conjuring up snow days”, talked about in the article, brings to mind Voodoo. It’s fascinating that magic or voodoo was so looked down on for so long, and even to an extent is now in the very hyper-scientific society in which we live, but that it holds such an important role for people. This again speaks to belief, and how strong it is despite changing times or new scientific discoveries.
Day of the Dead
The informant is a 19-year old student attending USC. She was born in Avellino, and has lived in central Mexico, London, and Italy in her life. She speaks Italian, Spanish, and English and is majoring in architecture. The following is what she shared with me about Day of the Dead from when she lived in Mexico for 6 years.
Informant: “In Mexico there was the Day of the Dead.”
Interviewer: “How do they celebrate it?”
Informant: “They made like alters with food, and they have it out for the dead. There are a certain amount of days it goes on.
Interviewer: “Did you have any friends who celebrated it?”
Informant: “Yes, but we did it at school too. We did the sugar skulls.”
Interviewer: “What’s a sugar skull?”
Informant: “It’s a skull made out of sugar. [Laughs]. You just bought them at the supermarket. You could decorate them yourself.
Interviewer: “What is Day of the Dead about?”
Informant: “To celebrate the Dead! The people that have passed on come back to life at night.”
Interviewer: “is it scary? Like are the dead perceived as bad?”
Informant: “No, it’s good. They are good spirits.”
Day of the Dead is a pretty well known and considerably popularized holiday. It was interesting to hear how indifferently the informant was about Day of the Dead and the customs around it. Perhaps having lived in a culture where the dead aren’t perceived as “bad” or as haunting makes the whole notion of dead coming back to life something casual.
Talking to the informant about how Day of the Dead was celebrated in Mexico reminds me a lot of talking to Israeli soldiers when I was in Israel this summer about bar and bat mitzvahs in Israel. One might think that Jewish rituals would be more extreme or that people would be more devout in a Jewish state, but in fact, it seemed the opposite. All of us American-Jews were surprised to find out that for the Israeli soldiers we talked to, bar and bat mitzvahs (Jewish coming of age ritual) were just parties for the bar or bat mitzvah and his or her friends as opposed to the religiously-heightened ritual they are typically performed in the United States.
The informant is a 95-year old man who grew up in Davenport, right near downtown with his parents and two brothers. His father came over from Russia and owned a grocery store in Davenport. He now lives in Skokie, IL with his wife and caretaker. He has three sons and 9 grandchildren.
Informant: “In Hebrew school they liked to play tricks on teachers. The tricks were different but they always happened. In my Hebrew school we always used to pull pranks if a substitute teacher came. The school was getting all new desks. The new desks were in the basement of the temple. They didn’t bolt them down to the cement floor, they just had them loose. When the substitute teacher went to go to the toilet, all the other guys in the class (there must have been 20 of us) moved their desks way back. And I was not going to participate in it, that kind of tomfoolery. So I kept my desk right where it was. He comes back, he’s from English this teacher, and you know he has thee gray gloves. He comes back in and sees sall the rest of them all the way back and sees me by myself up front and he looks around and tells me to come up to the front, “come up here and get your punishment.” He hit me across the face with his gloves.”
This story reflects the insider/outsider mentality that is often involved in pranking. Pulling pranks on substitute teachers is a way of bringing closer together the pranksters (the students in the class) and in a sense, is the students’ way of demonstrating their power. It could also be seen as a sort of initiation right for new teachers, or for substitute teachers, into the class. Practical jokes create a situation and distract from a lesson, something students are often very keen on doing.
The informant is a 58-year old woman from Trinidad, who has lived in the United States for 45 years. She was raised by her parents in Trinidad and lived in a house with her parents, grandparents, and nine siblings. She attended primary school, and then began working as a housekeeper and nanny. She loves cooking, mainly without recipes or set amounts of any ingredients, having learned her recipes “from my mom and aunts and from trial and error.” The following is a cure for hiccups that she shared with me.
Informant: “When you have the hiccups, take a piece of cotton—you can use a cotton ball, that works well, or you can even use tissue if you don’t have any cotton—and get it wet. Not soaking, but wet enough. Then place it on your forehead, a little above your eyebrows.”
Interviewer: “And that’s all?”
Informant: “Well, you hold it there for a minute, or even a few minutes. And the hiccups should go away.”
Interviewer: “Where did you learn that?”
Informant: “My grandma told me to do it when I was younger. And it worked. It always worked. So I kept doing it. And it always works, I don’t know why but it does.”
The power of belief is amazing! I have actually tried this remedy to alleviate the hiccups and it has worked all three times I have tried it. I doubt it is from the wet cotton but rather from my belief in its potency that stops the hiccups. This is something like the placebo test in its effective nature despite lack of “scientific” evidence.
Hiccups are a sort of naturally occurring phenomena–it makes sense that there are such a vast array of remedies for this common ailment, so to speak. While homeopathic magic often seems silly at first glance, or roundabout, it was so interesting to read about how so much modern medicine — 80% of it in fact–comes from remedies known to indigenous people; a lot of the medicines that cure ailments and illnesses, even diseases as pervasive and previously considered deadly as cancer (such as the rosie periwinkle plant native to Madagascar is known to be able to do with Leukemia), come about from bio prospecting folk remedies.