Author Archive

Proper Tea

Informant was raised in an upper middle class household in suburban Connecticut, by parents of English and German extraction.  Her grandfather was one of the first of the ‘Mad Men’ and her parents were the first wealthy generation of her family.  She attended boarding school in upstate New York, and went home on the weekends.  Her family’s emphasis on understanding how to assemble and consume a proper English-style tea seems to emphasize in-group identification with the upper middle class, as opposed to their actual, slightly more humble, origins.

I think we were the last class of the Victorian era, because my mother had the last of the Victorian headmistresses. Part of being a young lady or gentleman was participating in afternoon tea, you know, correctly.  She made sure we learned how to prepare and serve and take tea the in the proper way. It was just afternoon tea, but there were special occasions when we got high tea as well.

High tea is supper, but early with tea, sandwiches, scones and crumpets and whatnot, and it’s savory as well as sweet. It’s a light meal. I spent Sunday afternoons being taught how to pour tea and eat a sandwich like a lady and not like a street urchin.

First of all, you have a pot of tea, and you don’t have tea bags, you don’t have mugs with tea bags in them, you have a pot of properly brewed tea, tea spoons, cups, saucers, cloth napkins… this training did not include treats because it’d have blown our little minds.

You always pour the cup on the saucer, you hand it to your companion or companions, you don’t just put things down in front of them, it’s about graciousness, not, you know, feeding. So you have a dish of sugar, tongs or a spoon for the sugar, and a proper small china pitcher to contain the cream, all of which you pass from hand to hand, never letting anything touch the table if it is about to be used.

You have to have a designated host or hostess, or it’s just chaos and pandemonium. That is the person who, you know, pours the tea and hands you—HANDS YOU—your cup on the saucer and all of that sort of thing.

Context: interviewer and informant were sharing an informal afternoon tea, and informant became agitated when interviewer failed to pass a sugar bowl correctly.

Folk Beliefs

Newts as Yardstick for Ecosystems

Interviewer and informant were on a hike together, and in a pond at the base of a waterfall, found quite a few newts feeding.

Informant: This is great, this is really good to see.  Newts and I think salamanders and a certain kind of frogs—what’s that class? They’re not reptiles, but they’re something equally repulsive?

Interviewer: Amphibians?

Informant: The amphibians—if they disappear, the salamanders or newts and a certain frog, I know this from my friends who lead wildflower walks and go snow camping with me, it’s a sign of, I’ll say degradation of the natural habitat, of the environment, which could be drought or pollution or non-native plants and animals wreaking havoc on the natural environment. Water pollution, absence of water, because they’re amphibians, it’s water-related stress. It’s all very logical but it’s the kind of thing you don’t know until someone tells you.  Also they’re poisonous.


Jinxes: How they work

Informant: So if someone says a word at the same time as you say a word, and they say jinx right after, then you cannot speak until someone says your name three times. There are very strict rules to this, too. If you continue speaking after you say the same word and the other guy says jinx right after, like, say you’re trying to jinx me and I’m saying a sentence, and you jinx me but I continue talking while you say jinx, that counter-acts it.

Also, lemme think. You can’t jinx on a song or a jingle if, like, you’re both singing along or something, or if you’re repeating after someone. If you get in a jinxout, where you both say it at the same time and you keep saying it, you can kinda, um, you can stop the jinx by saying any word during that sequence, like you both say but and then you both say jinx, whoever says a word, that, like, breaks it. I think that’s all the jinx rules. Oh. They gotta say your whole name the same way all three times or it doesn’t count.

Interviewer: Same person has to say it?

Informant: No, anyone can say it.  If three different people say it or if, like, if two people say it and then one person says one syllable and someone else says the other one, you’re, like, you’re still–the jinx is still over ’cause they said it.

Interviewer: What happens if you break the rules?

Informant: I dunno. I haven’t tried yet.  You just, you don’t.  Ahhh, if I do, I’ll tell you, okay?

The sixteen year old interviewer had just been jinxed at a family dinner when this was collected, and the interviewer took that opportunity to ask some questions about the rules surrounding the concept of jinxing as practiced in the informant’s family.  His mother and younger sister are the other major participants.  It seems to be, perhaps, a playful but instructive way for adults to demonstrate basic principles of etiquette and teach a younger person to listen before speaking and perhaps discourage impulsive or disruptive speech.


European Rat Shit

Informant is sixteen years old.  He is a high school student and an athlete.  It is likely that this name for an otherwise fairly simple and low-stakes card game is an attempt by the young players to feel tough and cool, and to identify with a more sophisticated group by using language they perceive as being more adult.  The interviewer was unable to find any evidence of a game by this name, but the informant swears that most people his age know about it, or at least boys on sports teams, as he has played it with kids from other football teams, who recognized the name immediately.

Interviewer: Do you know any games, like something your friends taught you?

Informant: Well, there’s European Rat Shit.

Interviewer: What’s that?

Informant: It’s a card game, you play with, like, a normal deck, no jokers.  It’s similar to Slap Jack, which is where you each put a card down and you slap it when a Jack comes up and you get all the cards in the piles and the object is to get all the cards. But in European Rat Shit, each face card, ah, you, the other person—each face card you put down, the other person has to but down a certain amount of other cards and if there’s a sandwich, which would be one card, a different card, and the same card as the first card, then you slap it and you get the hand that’s down, or if there’s a double, same thing: same card on top of each other and you slap it the whole hand is yours.

Interviewer: Why’s it called that?

Informant: That’s a good question. Can I google it? There’s a lot of names for it that I know. European War, um, hold on. ERS, which is just, like, abbreviation, I guess. Three. I know three names. Counting European Rat Shit.


Initiation Ritual in Bakeries

Informant worked in the bakery belonging to his grandmother and father to put himself through college.  While there, he encountered this initiation rite that every new employee had to ‘pass’ before they were officially one of the guys.  It is a variation on the idea of snipe-hunting, or the naval ‘steaming the deck’ trope.

Informant: We used to give the new guy a ten gallon cream can and send him three blocks down, a new guy when he came, started, and send him three blocks down to another bakery to get a can of steam.

Interviewer: Why?

Informant: Just kind of initiation.The milkcan, the cream can, the thing weighed like forty fifty pounds, they had to be heavy or they’d get dented.

Interviewer: Empty?  Thirty pounds empty?

Empty. Ten gallon can? It’s huge, it’s made of metal, I used to carry em around full.  By the time the guy figured out it was a, I guess, a hazing thing, he was one of the family, you know.


Jokes spotlighting concerns about masculinity

Informant is a 77 year old male, American, grew up working in his father’s bakery in Boyle Heights.

His father, who came of age just before WW2, shared a wealth of proverbs and dites with Informant, mostly disparaging toward women or somehow engaged with how to be a manly, which might have been of great concern during a time when women were flooding workplaces while men were fighting overseas.

Informant: If I missed an opportunity or something, he’d say to me, “Alan, if you fell into a barrel of titties, you’d come out sucking your thumb.”  I know he got that from his boxing buddies but it’s a little late to ask for details.

His favorite joke was, “You know why cavemen dragged their women around by the hair, right?  It’s because if you drag em by the feet, they fill up with dirt.

There’s more, but I can’t tell you, it’s too–it’s too much.

Folk speech

How to talk about dogs on the internet

So on the internet, mostly on Facebook groups and some subreddits, there’s this sort of new vernacular that’s developed around sharing pictures and memes of dogs. Instead of puppies and dogs, they’re called puppers and doggos, and different breeds sometimes have their own nicknames. The shiba inu sometimes gets called a shibe, and there’s a fluffy white dog breed, a Samoyed I think, that gets called a cloudo, because it looks kinda like a cloud. Anyway, beyond that, there are these tropes and speaking patterns that people use to caption and comment on these memes. People will say, “good boy does a v heckin good trick!” But they’ll capitalize “good boy,” put a space between each letter and slap an E on the end. This usually has lots of variations, like cloud boy, smart boy, or whatever is relevant to what’s happening in the image or gif. And instead of saying “very” they just use the letter v. It’s kind of weird looking from the outside, but at the same time these communities are very wholesome, and the whole vernacular is a fun in-joke on the internet.

Folk medicine

Chicken Soup

Informant was asked if she knew any good cold remedies.

Informant: So if you’re not feeling well, you should have a lot of fluids and mostly chicken soup, if you can.  Water and what have you is for the birds.  And sweet stuff won’t help unless it’s orange juice.  Fresh squeezed.  But soup, soup is what you really should be having.

Interviewer: So just a can of soup is okay?  Like Campbells?  Do you add anything to it?

Informant.: You know better than that.  You don’t open a can of it.

You need the vegetables, you need them to cook together.  Just opening something doesn’t give you anything.  It’s the making of it that makes it do for you.

Interviewer: Okay, so–

Informant: So you know, you start with a pot of water and what they used to call soup herbs.  Soup herbs, you’d get at the green grocer tied up together in a bundle and it was a little parsley, a little dill maybe, a parsnip, a carrot, some celery with the leaves, and you put that in your water with enough salt to make the water taste like something.

And then if you have it and you have the, you know, you feel you can do it, you put in a whole chicken and you just put it on the low fire.  And you let it go.  You don’t want to boil it all the way up, you want just small bubbles, you want to keep it clear and it keeps the meat from being tough, if you don’t, you know, if you let it boil and what have you.

So you don’t have a chicken, so you use maybe bones leftover from your roast chicken or I don’t know you can still, if you can, if you can get them, but chicken feet make a very rich-tasting soup, and depending on the butcher, maybe you don’t pay for them at all.

But you put these all together and you cook it for a couple of hours and you put maybe a little pepper or lemon juice in it if you want something more to it, rice or kasha [buckwheat groats] if you want it substantial, and then you throw away your soup herbs and you shred any meat you want to have with the soup, or you save it and you make chicken salad, but you can put more vegetables and heat them through and let them get soft before you eat it.

And don’t skim off the fat, that’s the best part.


Dried Fruit Strudel For Company

This was collected while the informant was in the hospital, recovering from surgery.  She wanted the interviewer to prepare the strudel for visitors, so that she could be a good hostess.

Informant: I wish you would try this, but you probably can’t do it. But I’d love to taste it again and have it for when they visit me. It’s something that Eastern European Jewish people would make for company. Dried fruit is expensive, but it keeps well, and then if you can make the dough right, well, they know you’ve got it.

Interviewer: It?

Informant: You know, that you’re good at figuring things out, patient, a good homemaker and what have you.  My mother couldn’t always do it just so, and she did it a lot, but when she did it right, oh, it was like candy. It was chewy like candy. It’s not a recipe, she just knew how to do it sometimes. She just learned and she did it.

Look, so I don’t remember everything but I know the dough had oil and salt and water in it but no egg. And she kneaded it and kneaded it and kneaded it. She had very strong arms and hands.

So then I don’t remember too well. But I think she let it rise? With a cloth on it. For as long as it would take to make the filling.

For the filling I know she said you had to boil it to make it chewy. This is the first part you probably won’t be able to, to—you know, because you can’t get the thing. The grinder. For the fruit. But I think she used cherries and prunes and grapes. All dried, you know. And she boiled them with orange peels which she would save and dry out and grind up into a very fine powder. You probably don’t have time.

But she boiled it all and she said boiling it was important. And she put down maybe some nuts or some toasted stale bread or something, I don’t know.

And she’d put that aside to cool after she ground everything up.

Interviewer: Did she put the bread in the filling? Like crumbs?

Informant: No, on the dough.  Walnuts.  Sometimes walnuts instead of bread, if we had.  And the dough she would roll out at first and then when she felt it was the right time, felt the dough, she would just pick it up on her fingertips and she would stretch it until you could read a newspaper through it. I tried.  I never had the patience for it. On a piece of clean linen, she would roll it out. I don’t think you can get plain clean linen like that now. And then she’d put the fruit on it and the nuts or crumbs or what have you, and she’d pick up the end of the cloth and it would just roll itself up. And then so you bake it and it’s done.

Interviewer: Did she put oil on the dough? Or sugar?

Informant: She wouldn’t have used any sugar. Oil or margarine. And then more maybe on the outside. And then just enough sugar to make it sparkle a little bit but not so much you could see it from across the room.

Interviewer: Well, I’ll try.

Informant: She would cut it crosswise before she put it in the oven. Not all the way through.

Folk speech

The UCLA Cheer

Informant found this carved into a desk in the medical library at UCLA in 1967, and shared it with his fellow students.  They would often chant it together during difficult exercises, like dissection.  Informant recognizes that it was a way of cementing in-group identity, establishing solidarity and masculinity (particularly through some of the more homophobic and misogynistic wording), and when dissecting corpses, pushing away thoughts of mortality with something coarse and crass.  Also, since most of his fellow students were young men living at home, informant suspects that such liberal use of profanity helped him and his fellow students to feel more adult.

Informant, now 77 and retired, still uses this cheer when doing something difficult or complicated, or when looking for his glasses.


So you use this however you want.  I used it a lot in the dissection lab, you know, because the corpses didn’t bitch about it.  I did it in a whatchacallit, female monks, in a convent, when I was putting together a wedding cake for my dental assistant.  The nuns were furious.  You ready?

Interviewer: Ready.



Ahem.  It doesn’t work if you’re quiet about it, though.

Cocksucker, motherfucker, eat a bag of shit!

Douchebag dicklicker bite yer mother’s tit!

We’re the very best and all the others suck.

UCLA, UCLA, rah rah fuck!