Author Archive
Folk speech
Musical

Dinner Train Song

Context

It took some effort to get my informant, who immigrated from England at 13, to remember some examples of English folklore. I prompted him by asking for bedtime stories or lullabies from his childhood.

Main Piece

So, when I was little, my English grandmother would sing me and my brother Tate this song before bedtime, or whenever we pestered her to do it. Um… I don’t know where she learned it. Basically you, you say the names of various… culinary treats, and you gradually speed up in a rhythmic way as you say each item, um, like a locomotive carrying on — gathering steam.

Coffee, coffee

Cheese and biscuits, cheese and biscuits

Fruit and custard, fruit and custard

Fish ‘n’ chips, fish ‘n’ chips

(And then, imitating steam whistle, going up in pitch)

Sooooooouuuuuuuup!

Notes

With some digging, I was able to find an account of this song on a British teaching website, and some performances on YouTube. My informant did not know where or when his grandmother had learned the song, but commenters on the above website remembered singing it at Bible camp in the 1960s and hearing it on a 78 rpm record in the 1940s. I also found a slightly different version of this chant on a website for the Australian Joey Scouts group. It is difficult to determine the precise origin of this piece, but it is clear that although I had never encountered it, it has been around since the early 20th century and has made its way around the world.

Foodways
Humor
Material

Why We Cut the Ends off the Pot Roast

Context

This piece is not actually a recipe, but a humorous anecdote about a family recipe.

Main Piece

My mom would would tell about how her grandmother I believe it was had the recipe for a pot roast that got passed down and it was, you know, it was dictated by her and written down and continued for a couple generations which, uh, included, after the, the general preparation and seasoning, uh included the instructions “cut off the ends of the pot roast” and then put in the oven at whatever temperature it was supposed to be cooked at. They did it dutifully until somebody, someday asked, finally: “I don’t understand what this does to it — cutting the ends off. How does that help?” And she said “Oh you know, otherwise it doesn’t fit into the pot!”

Notes

This story gives insight into how family/folk recipes are developed, and how a seemingly random or arbitrary part of the preparation may originate out of necessity: obviously, not everyone’s pot would be too small to cook an entire pot roast, but the members of this family followed the recipe verbatim out of respect and trust for the grandmother, even though the cutting of the ends only applied for her personal cookware.

Folk Beliefs

Whistling Indoors

Context

I asked the informant (my mother) to think of any family superstitions other than the most common ones — opening an umbrella indoors, etc. She responded with one I had never encountered before.

Main Piece

Okay, there was a rule: no whistling allowed inside the house. It was bad luck. And that was passed on from Grandpa S—-’s family, so — so no whistling was allowed in my house, because no whistling was allowed in their house, in the G—- house, of Papa U— and Grandma G— and their four kids, because… whistling in the house meant you were gonna have bad luck.

Notes

I had absolutely never heard of such a superstition, as my mother did not continue to practice the rule of her parents and grandparents, but a Google search revealed that this superstition is common in Russia. My family did have Russian roots, and given the proximity of Russia and Romania, it is possible that my great-grandparents, referred to here as Papa U—- and Grandma G—-, learned this superstition in their native Romania. More on this superstition can be found here and here. According to these sources, the superstition is linked to money: whistling in the house will supposedly cause financial misfortune. As immigrants in a new country, my great-grandparents clearly did not want to take any chances on losing money, and neither did their son, my maternal grandfather (Grandpa S—-).

Customs
Foodways
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Shrove Day

Context

Coming from my Jewish background, I had minimal knowledge of Christian holidays besides Christmas. My informant taught me about Shrove Tuesday and the special treat associated with it.

Main Piece

So, Shrove Tuesday — S-H-R-O-V-E Tuesday, otherwise known as Pancake Day, is a religious holiday celebrated in the United Kingdom, mostly by Christians, um, but sometimes Catholics, Lutherans, etcetera etcetera. Um, basically, it’s, it’s before Lent, so it’s, it’s a holiday of self-reflection and, uh, y’know, like Thanksgiving, I guess. But basically, the whole country goes nuts, they make these pancakes, which are more like crepes, with the traditional toppings of lemon and sugar. You would drizzle, uh, lemon juice on top and then dust it with sugar, and then you would wrap it up and eat it. It’s actually really f__king good. But basically at school, every Shrove Tuesday we would get… it was like, an exciting day because you could eat something sweet that didn’t taste like wet cardboard. So that was just a fun thing that we’d all get very excited for… of course, it being school lunch it wasn’t really that yummy, anyway… but that was just a fun thing to look forward to in the school year.

shrove-tuesday-uk

 

Notes

While I had not heard of Shrove Tuesday, the interesting thing to me about this piece, as with the Guy Fawkes Day entry, was how removed the informant’s celebration of the holiday is from its origin and meaning. My informant does not come from a religious background, but looked forward to Shrove Tuesday solely because of its association with pancakes — the day was even known by the alternate name “Pancake Tuesday.” To him, the holiday had little to do with Christianity. Worldwide, particularly in the United States, Christmas has become secularized and fairly non-denominational. I would be interested to know how many children who grow up participating in festive, secular versions of these holidays end up continuing to practice the religion.

Annotation

Godlewski, Nina. “What Is the Meaning of Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday?” Newsweek, Newsweek, 5 Mar. 2019, www.newsweek.com/fat-shrove-tuesday-what-meaning-tradition-1351332.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Guy Fawkes Day

Context

Because this was my only non-American informant, I was particularly interested in customs or holidays specific to England. My informant had vivid memories of Guy Fawkes Day/Night through the lens of a child.

Main Piece

So, the fifth of November is a big deal in the U.K. It’s Guy Fawkes Day. Basically what we do is, we all gang together — gang together and we’ll, uh, go to the bonfire. Beforehand, sometimes you’ll have like a meal or something, you’ll get together, have drinks, etcetera. But basically the highlight of the evening is going to watch Guy Fawkes burn on this big bonfire. Usually we’d go to our local park — my local park was Battersea Park, in case you cared — and there’d just be like, a massive — well, it seemed massive to like, a ten year old — a big bonfire. Guy Fawkes was, of course, on top. The fun thing for us kids is that they used to sell these light-saber, light-up glow-stick-y things like you’d see in your American Fourth of July, um, and it’d just be a fun way to like, hang out with the kids and stuff. Celebrate a bit of history.

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Notes

While I vaguely recalled the story of Guy Fawkes and the November Plot, I knew little of how it is commemorated in England. I was surprised and a little shocked to learn of the effigy burning — it seems a bit barbaric and nationalistic for a widely-celebrated holiday. The account of communal gathering, fun light-up novelties and bonfires demonstrates how little such historically-based holidays really have to do with the actual historic events which inspire them, and the often upsetting or controversial meanings behind those. To my informant, as a child, it was simply a fun holiday, much like our fireworks and barbecue on the Fourth of July. I was able to learn more about the origins and evolution of Guy Fawkes Day in James Sharpe’s book Remember Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day.

Annotation

Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day. Sharpe, Harvard University Press. 2005.

Customs
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Pinning Money on Bridal Veil

Context

I asked the informant for any traditions or customs he had participated in. Though not Cajun himself, the informant has a residence in New Orleans and has participated in the culture for many years.

Main Piece

Mary and I got married at a crawfish boil in rural Louisiana – in Eunice – in the backyard of a family and, uh, some leading cajun musicians and cultural crusaders and, uh, one of the traditions for at a wedding there — and probably in other cultures as well — is, uh… people will come up to the bride and just pin money to, uh, to her veil and people were doing that all over and so, y’know, we’re, y’know, everywhere we went at this party people were just doing that and uh, and then we also learned that people on their birthdays, down around there, people will, they’ll have money pinned to their shirts… people will just come up and put more on the safety pin. You’ll see somebody walking around at some point with money pinned to their shirt and you’ll turn and say “happy birthday!”

Notes

The tradition of pinning money on a bride’s veil, as well as pinning money on someone’s clothes when it is their birthday, is common in Cajun communities, though its origins are difficult to trace; there are accounts of similar practices in Europe and Africa. Another part of the custom which the informant may not have experienced is that the bride and groom will dance when someone pins money on the veil.

Folk medicine
Homeopathic

Eternal Youth Face Mask

Context

I was interested in finding an example of a folk remedy or natural beauty regimen that had been taught to my mother from someone else in her family. While she could not think of any folk medicine examples, she did find a copy of her mother’s face mask recipe, which she read aloud.

Main Piece

Okay, this is the Silver Eternal Youth Mask, “Silver” meaning — that was her maiden name, and um… Grandma, and um, what she did was, she used to make this mask and put it on her face so she would look younger, and it was something that was passed on through her family — she learned it from her mom. When she turned 40, she decided that she was gonna create a business called 40 Plus, it was a line of products, and, so, this was one of the products that she was gonna try to sell. And so she tried it out on me, but it turned my face beet read. Anyway, so I’m gonna just read you the recipe:

Silver Eternal Youth Mask

3 egg whites, beaten until frothy.

One tablespoon honey.

  1. Mix together. 
  2. Place mixture all over face and neck. Feel how the mask tightens face and neck.
  3. Lie down with feet elevated. Place moistened cool cotton balls over eyes.
  4. Rest for 15 minutes. Think sweet thoughts.
  5. Remove mask with whole milk.

Notes

This piece gives insight into 20th century beauty standards (particularly the fact that it was passed from mother to daughter) and the association of beauty with “eternal youth.” I also was intrigued that my grandmother had planned on selling this product. As we have learned in class, many supposed Western medicine innovations are adaptations of indigenous methods; essentially, commodified and mass-marketed versions of things for which no one person can truly take credit. It would be interesting to know if commercial beauty products have similar folk origins.

Folk speech
Game
Gestures
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Chinese Restaurant Clapping Game

Context

Having collected a fairly common children’s game, thumb wars, I sought a game or rhyme that was more obscure. While familiar with similar games such as Paddy Cake (which the informant mentioned for reference), I had never heard of the Chinese Restaurant variant.

Main Piece

When I was little, on the playground we used to have… it was a sort of “paddy cake”-like game that had, um… a rhyme about a Chinese restaurant. So you would start and you would clap your hands together and clap opposite hands with your partner, and it would be like:

“I went to a Chinese restaurant 

To buy a loaf of bread bread bread

The waiter asked me what I want 

And this is what I said said said”

and then you would point to your eye and say:

“I know karate”

then you would punch and say:

“Punch in the body”

Then you would cover your hands with your mouth and say:

“Oops I’m sorry”

Then you would wag your finger and say:

“Don’t tell my mommy”

And then the most upsetting part is that you would move your eyelids in accordance with people’s race, so you would say:

“Chinese” — pull your eyelids up — or down, I don’t remember

“Japanese” — pull your eyelids up and then you say:

“Freeze!”

And then whoever said “check please!” first would win.

Notes

As the informant notes, the game is upsetting, enforcing the kind of racial stereotypes and prejudices that would have been seen as innocuous in past decades. As such, I would classify it as an example of blason populaire. It is through games and rhymes such as these, shared among children during their formative years, that casual racism insidiously engrains itself into young minds. Thankfully, the informant grew up and now recognizes the problematic nature of this game, but many others likely do not, and maybe even teach it to their children one day.

Game

Thumb Wars

Context

I asked the informant for a popular schoolyard game from his childhood, and this was his immediate response. Though I had played many a thumb war, his opening signature chant varied from mine.

Main Piece

Alright: thumb wars! Everyone used to do ‘em, and it starts off with the signature chant: “one, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war” as you move your thumb from left to right in opposition to your opponent’s. Sometimes, I don’t know if this is a thing out here, but we had “one, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war. five, six, seven, eight, you’re the thumb I really hate” um, I’m not sure if that’s a thing out here but we did that back home and then, you know, obviously you just like take your thumb and you try to push the other person’s thumb down as your hands are intertwined. It is cheating to move the elbow, um, it has to be all the thumb and yeah, the winner gets nothing, besides pride.

Notes

Thumb wars were very popular during my childhood, and so this recounting may not be the most valuable piece of lore, but I was intrigued by the variation in the classic introductory chant. While familiar with the first part — “one, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war,” in my experience, it is followed by “five, six, seven, eight, try to keep your thumbs straight.” Because my informant grew up in Wisconsin, I believe it may be a regional variance.

 

Legends
Narrative

The Hook Man

Context

The informant both introduces and retells her father’s encounter with the mysterious “Hook Man.”

Main Piece

When I was a kid, I lived in a house in the woods, and often, the power would go out. So when the power was out we would sit around the kitchen table with candles and my dad would tell us scary stories. This story is a story my dad told me when I was a kid, and it’s called “The Hook Man.” So my dad told it in the first-person perspective as if it happened to him, ‘cause he believes it did. It’s a ghost story — he believes it happened to him while he was at the University of Virginia. I don’t believe that, ‘cause I don’t believe in ghosts, but this is how it goes:

So my dad and his friends were by the old train tracks one night because they heard this urban legend about the Hook Man. The Hook Man worked on the transcontinental railroad in the early 20th century. He was the man who would put the railway down — the train tracks. And that work was very dangerous, so one day, the Hook Man got his hook, because his arm got cut off while he was working, and he died soon after, because he had no food, no way to sustain himself. So his ghost would haunt the train tracks.

So, my dad and his friends decided they would go to the train tracks in search of the Hook Man. And he would carry a lantern — the Hook Man — and this is how you would know, because the lantern would swing on his hook. So, they came to the train tracks. They were in their car waiting and they’re waiting to see him. And all the sudden, about five hundred feet away, they see the hook, the light swinging *swwsshh* — my dad did sound effects — and so, they got in their car and they’re like, “that’s the Hook Man” and they step on the gas *rrrr* (doing car revving sound effect) down the train tracks and they stop, because they notice that the lantern is now about a hundred feet away from where it was before. So they chased the lantern all night, and in the morning, it was gone. And that’s “The Hook Man.”

Notes

When the informant introduced her story as “The Hook Man,” I assumed she was referring to the popular urban legend of an escaped hooked convict terrorizing teenage couples, but was pleasantly surprised with a completely original ghost story. As with many supposedly-true ghost stories, this one has likely evolved and been exaggerated over time by the informant’s father, though this is a second-hand telling. As such, “The Hook Man” could be classified as a memorate: it originated with an experience the informant’s father ostensibly had, but was almost certainly altered to conform to common storytelling conventions when retold to the informant.

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