Author Archive
Earth cycle
Foodways
general
Holidays

Persian New Year Traditional Dishes

Context: The informant is a student in college and both of his parents were born in Iran. While he was born in California, the informant is a fluent Farsi speaker. He has never been around that many other Persians throughout his life besides his family, which he told me is quite extensive, and during the times in which he has visited the country of Iran. His family celebrates all of the major Iranian holidays. As I was interviewing him, I remembered that the informant had recently told me that he was going to his Grandparents house to celebrate the Iranian New Year with his entire extended family. I asked him if he could describe a particular custom that takes place or a food that is eaten during the celebration.

Piece: “My family is Persian and every year we gather together to celebrate the Persian New Year. The holiday takes place during the spring solstice. I don’t know exactly when that is, but I think it was on March 19th this year. Every year we… it’s tradition to have the same meal. Every year, my family always eats whitefish with rice and dill and lima beans. The dish is called sabzi polo and . Mahi is fish and ‘sabsipola’ is green rice. Wait, no. ‘Sabsipola’ is rice with greens. You eat that dish at the meal, and you always have to remember to squeeze the juice of a fresh orange over it. Make it good and yummy. I’m not sure if this dish physically represents some aspect of Iranian culture, but it’s like a very clean food. It’s really light, natural, refreshing, easy food to take in. It’s simple and has bright colors. The white fish, the green vegetables, and the orange juice all come together, and they make the food really visually striking and cleansing. These go along with the bright fresh flavors. The entire celebration is about spring, renewal, rebirth, life, green, prosperity. All that stuff.

Analysis: I find this piece interesting, for a major aspect of the folklore of this celebration, which the informant’s family cherishes to a great extent, are the sensory aspects that come with it, such as taste, smell, and sound. It seems that the dish containing whitefish holds a large amount of symbolism during the springtime festival. As the Iranian New Year celebrates the rebirth of the natural world that comes every springtime and the transition from one year to the next, the dish acts as a palette cleanser to send whoever eats it into the new year with a clean slate. All of the bad decisions that one may have made during the year may be partially absolved by the celebration. Like in this piece, there is an abundance of symbolic food dishes in many other holidays celebrated by a multitude of different religions. In the Jewish celebration of Passover, for example, the meal consists partially of a “seder plate” that holds many small individual food items, which all represent different elements of the Jew’s biblical exodus from Egypt.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Humor

German Folk Metaphor

Context: The 51-year-old informant from Memphis, TN, and I were discussing the role of folklore in parenting. The topic originally came up when I asked him if he was ever repeatedly taught any proverbs by his parents when he was young. He told me that while his parents never told him many proverbs, there was one sentence that his father would say sometimes; it was something that the informant’s grandfather, a German Jewish Canter and Holocaust survivor, told to the informant’s father when he was a young child. While the folk metaphor may seem like a harsh threat for a father to say to his son, the informant explained that “it was normal for a German parent discipline in a rather stern manner while including this essence of subtle humor.”

Piece: 

German: “Ich schlach dich das deine zahne in arsch klavier spielt”

English: “I will hit you so hard that your teeth will play piano in your ass”

Analysis: It must be pointed out that the informant’s father and grandfather performed this German folk metaphor in two completely different contexts and with entirely different intentions. The Grandfather, having come from a more traditional time with a harsher upbringing, clearly did intend to instill some fear in his son with this sentence, but only enough fear to get him to stop misbehaving when he was doing so. The fact that the metaphor begins with a harsh threat and ends with the hilariously ridiculous image of a pair of teeth jumping around piano keys in someone’s rear end sends a message from father to son. While the father may be mad at his son, he is acknowledging to both himself and the boy that humor can be found in the situation and that no great offense was committed. On the other hand, the informant’s father recited this folk metaphor to son in order to remind himself about his childhood while also sharing the information with his son.

Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

“America versus Yogurt” Joke

Context: The informant is a 19-year-old student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and he is currently an Art History major at USC. I asked him if his family is one that passes around a lot of jokes, to which he immediately replied, “Oh yeah. My family is really into humor and comedy.” I asked him if he could tell me a joke that a family member tells often. He said, “Here’s one that my dad says like all the time, especially to foreigners, and especially when we’re in another country.”

Piece: Q: “What’s the difference between America and a cup of yogurt?”

A: “If you leave the yogurt alone for long enough, it’ll eventually develop a culture.”

Analysis: This joke is a variation of the common “What’s the difference between…” joke format. A pun on the word “culture” is used to deliver the punchline as the word refers to both bacteria cultures and human culture. This piece is playing off of the common stereotype, or blason populaire, that Americans have no culture. This is a viewpoint that a large number of foreigners, and few Americans themselves, hold against the country, as many think that Americans are lazy, entitled, greedy, and gluttonous. We certainly do live in a society that glorifies excess; however, many would argue that the culture of America is one of the richest in the world since the country is a melting pot of many different cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, races, and religions. This stereotype may have also stemmed, in part, from the fact that the country is relatively new compared to many of the world’s other nations and quite separated from a large part of the Earth.

general
Legends

Neighborhood Voodoo Tree

Context: The informant is a 51-year-old man who has lived in Memphis, Tennessee for his entire life. When asking him about legends or stories that he was told as a child, he remembered this one. He does not remember who exactly told him about the lady who lived on his street, but he assumes it was one of the kids who lived near him in his neighborhood.

Piece: “There was a woman that lived in a house on my street growing up and, it was different from every house in the neighborhood. It was poorly kept. There was a tree in the corner of the yard, a small wider kinda, wild looking tree. There were these things hanging in the tree. I seem to recall them looking like crudely constructed ghost figures. They were made out of some sack material and they had small distorted faces drawn on them. There were strings tied around them.  I was told that they were voodoo dolls. That was the first time I heard about Voodoo dolls. People would say that if you went in her yard, she would make a voodoo doll for you that looked just like you, and she could control you with the doll. She could control you to perform tasks for her. If she stuck a pin in it, you would feel pain. If you lit them on fire, they would burn. There is something very strange about this house, and looking back on the events, I would not be surprised if the woman was actually a practitioner of voodoo. My perception is that most of the area where I lived around was new construction, but I could feel a distinction with this one house.”

Analysis: When I asked the informant what he thought about this story, he immediately responded by pointing out the fact that his neighborhood consisted almost entirely of white families. He remembers the woman being African-America and elderly and thinks this is what led many of the children in the neighborhood to believe she practiced voodoo, of course in addition to the mysterious tree. In much of the popular culture during the 1970s, the customs of voodoo were often presented through a prejudiced lens which deemed it a lesser, more primal practice as opposed to the more popular religions of the time. You would also rarely see a white person performing voodoo in film, tv, or literature. Oftentimes when a community or group is presented with something that they are unfamiliar with, they will create some explanation in order to fill the void of uncertainty. In this case, children may have seen the mysterious figures on the tree which did look very similar to the voodoo dolls presented in pop culture (confirmed by the informant) and immediately assumed that was what they were.

Annotation: For another version of voodoo dolls see:

Reuber, Alexandra. “Voodoo Dolls, Charms, And Spells In The Classroom: Teaching, Screening, And Deconstructing The Misrepresentation Of The African Religion.” Contemporary Issues in Education Research (CIER), vol. 4, no. 8, 2011, p. 7.

Humor
Narrative

“A frog walks into a bank” Joke

Context: I asked the 20-year-old informant from New Jersey if there were any jokes, pranks, or games that hold a certain significance in his family. He told me that there was one joke that his grandfather always tells at family gatherings. The joke is especially told if there is a guest at the gathering who has never heard it before. The informant also mentioned that in recent years, he and his father have started to recite the joke more and more.

Piece: “So, one Tuesday afternoon, a frog walks into the local bank to take out a loan. He walks up to the bank teller, her name is Mrs. Patty Whack. Frog sees her nametag and says, ‘Hi Mrs. Whack. I would like to take out a loan today.’ And Mrs. Whack is thrown off because, you know, usually humans are the ones who take out loans, not frogs. So Mrs. Whack says, ‘Umm…This is peculiar, but, you know what, you’re talking, so let’s just get this over with. If you want a loan, you must really be something. So, tell me about yourself. What’s your name? What’s your background?’ The frog responded, ‘Well, my name is Jerry and actually, you wouldn’t believe this, but my father is Mick Jagger.’ And Mrs. Whack says, “Oh! Well I guess he’s kind of got a froggy face, so it makes sense that he would, like, carry over to you. Maybe he’s a frog himself.’ And Jerry says, “Oh no. Don’t say that about my dad. That’s not a nice thing to say about him.’ And then Mrs. Whack says, ‘I’m so sorry. Well, let’s see. Can I have some form of collateral for this loan?’ And Jerry takes out a little pink elephant, a special elephant, and he says, “Hey, you know, this is kind of ironic. Elephants are usually larger than frogs, but here I am with like a really tiny elephant in my hand.’ Mrs. Whack chuckles and says, ‘Ok, haha! Let me take this. It’s not the greatest collateral, but I’ll take it. And let me speak to my manager in the back.’ So she goes to the back of the room, and she says to the manager, ‘You know, I’ve got this frog who wants to take out a loan. And for collateral, all he has given me is this like little pink porcelain elephant. Do you know anything about this little pink elephant? Is it valuable or whatever?’

And the manager says to her, ‘It’s a knick-knack, Patty Whack. Give the frog a loan. His old man is a Rolling Stone.’

Analysis: Upon hearing this joke, I immediately recognized a connection to another subgenre of jokes: “A blank walks in a bar…” jokes. These types of jokes also often have an anthropomorphized animal as the main subject. It’s often a horse or a duck, and, in certain examples, I have also seen people use a frog as a subject of the joke. Those jokes often usually begin with a confused bartender asking the animal how they are able to walk and talk or why they have even come to the bar. The punchline of this particular joke is a play on a well-known line from a popular British nursery rhyme, “The Old Man.” In this nursery rhyme, the most famous line is, “With a knick knack paddy whack, give a dog a bone. This old man is a rolling stone.”

 

 

Folk speech
Humor
Proverbs

Yiddish Proverb

Context: The 20-year-old informant from Montclair, New Jersey was telling me how his mother’s grandfather, the informant’s great-grandfather, was a Yiddish teacher for many years. He often spoke fluent Yiddish to his granddaughter, and she picked up many interesting and sometimes hilarious phrases, jokes, and proverbs. I asked him if he could give me a few examples of these Yiddish phrases, and he told me that there is one thing that his grandparents, and sometimes his mother, always say to him. While this proverb always contributes the same meaning, it can be delivered in a multitude of variations, each one more descriptive than the next.

Piece: “So my great-grandfather was a Yiddish teacher, and he taught my mother many Yiddish phrases, which she, in turn, passed down to me. Definitely, the most memorable thing that he used to say was how he would tell someone to leave a room in response to them doing something idiotic or clumsy. Or if a person just said something rude, or like flat out stupid.”

1. Yiddish: “Gay esen a bagel”

English: “Go eat a bagel”

2. Yiddish: “Gay kachen afen yahn”

English: “Go take a shit in the ocean”

Analysis: While these two examples of folk speech seem to be completely different in meaning when first heard, they are actually employed to convey the same message: I want you to leave my presence. The speaker may not actually want the recipient of these words to leave; it may just be a way to bring a certain humorous shame upon the subject. I have noticed an interesting trend in the folk speech of eastern Europeans, such as Germans, Pollocks, and those who speak Yiddish. There seems to be an abundance of humor involving vivid, oftentimes grotesque imagery of the human body engaged in vulgar acts, sometimes even involving bodily fluids. Such a level of vulgarity is only socially acceptable to use if you are speaking to a family member or anyone else that you are very close to. When a father tells his son to “Gay kachen afen yahn” or “go shit in the ocean,” he is using it partially as a term of endearment. This type of folk speech, specifically telling someone to leave a room, exists in many other places around the world, including the United States, where they say, “Go take a hike!”

Game

Punch Buggy Game

Context: Going into this folklore project, I knew that I wanted to collect somebody’s personal account of the Punch Buggy game. This is a game that my sisters and I used to play whenever we rode in the car as children and it involves the pointing out of Volkswagen Beetle cars. Many of my friends who went to my elementary school also played the game whenever they were in the car, and I distinctly remember riding in with them and thinking, ‘that’s not how you play the game.” Looking back now, I realize that they were not playing the game wrong and were actually demonstrating the multiplicity and variation that is intrinsic to folklore. I was interviewing an informant, an art major at USC and avid skateboarder, when I was reminded about my interest in the game. I asked the 19-year-old informant from Saratoga, California, if he had ever played the punch buggy game and, if so, how he had played it.

Piece: “Yeah, so, me and my older sister used to always play the punch buggy game. It was a favorite of ours and we were pretty competitive about it, as siblings usually are. So, on long road trips, my family and I used to drive up to Bear Valley from San Jose, which is like a three-hour car ride. And I’d usually be stuffed in the back seat with my sister who would like to mess with me all the time. So, um, whenever you saw a Volkswagen bug driving down the road, in a parking lot, in someone’s driveway, or I guess anywhere, you would immediately punch the person who you are playing with and say, ‘no punch backs!’ No, you would say, ‘Punch buggy no punch backs!’ It wouldn’t be that hard of punch, just a hit in the arm. But we also had some variations on those rules, like I knew a lot of people who would just see a VW Bug, punch the other person, and that was it. But our version was more complicated. So, if you saw an out-of-state license plate, you would get two punches. And I forgot to mention that one punch equals one point. So if you saw a punch buggy with a Washington license plate, you’d be able to punch your sibling. And I think we had some other rule involving the colors of the cars too, but I can’t remember that exactly. I think maybe if you saw the same color twice then your points would multiply, or some shit. I don’t know, there were a bunch of different factors in it, but I can’t remember all of them.”

Analysis: I find it fascinating that without me ever mentioning it, the informant spoke about how the Punch Buggy game’s rules have multiple variations. I remember about ten years ago, in attempt to capitalize on the popular children’s game, the Volkswagen motor company released a series of commercials which proposed a new game that could be played with Volkswagen Beetles. In the commercial, a person would see one of the cars and say the color of the car followed by the word “one.” For example, if you saw a red car, you would say “red one.” I remember a few of my friends playing this game in the months following the commercials’ release; however, after a while, people lost interest and the game died out. I believe that this reflects the human desire to hold on to folkloric and organically developed traditions in an increasingly artificial world. The entire category of road trip games came out of the boredom of riding in a car for long periods of time. For children especially, games like these are necessary outlets for fun since sitting in the back seat of a car can often feel uncomfortable and constraining and it can be difficult to talk to the person who is driving or sitting in the passenger seat.

AnnotationFor variations of the rules of Punch Buggy, see:

Polk, Janet. Rules for Playing Slug Bug and Punch Buggy. AuthorHouse, 2006.

 

Folk medicine
Foodways
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Material

Fertility Charms

Context: I was interviewing a 50-year-old female informant from Memphis, TN, who is a registered nurse. She grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household that kept strict kosher dietary laws and regularly attended temple. I was in her home and explaining to her the many different categories of folklore, so she would have a good idea of the type of information that I was looking for. When I mentioned the category of folk medicine, she seemed very intrigued and asked me what types of things could be considered folk medicine. I listed off a few examples, and she said, “Ok, then I definitely have a piece of folklore that is good.”

Piece: “Many years ago, about 21 or so years ago, me and my husband wanted to have our first child. We attempted to do so for a while but had a very difficult time conceiving. We, of course, sought out help from a medical professional, but for a while, many of our friends and relatives who knew we were having trouble having a baby came to us with personal and family items that they claimed would help us conceive. I did not take any interest in any of these offers. I remember one of my older relatives offered my husband and me a family blanket which she told us would definitely give us a baby if we lied under it during intercourse. Obviously, we turned that offer down immediately; it made us pretty uncomfortable. One of my closest friends at the time was very spiritual and worldly; she traveled a lot and spoke multiple languages. She came to me with something that was given to her by another friend when she was trying to have a baby. It was this small stone idol. I do not remember exactly what the figure looked like, but I think it was just a regular woman. It was held in this small stone box that could fit in my hand and the box had a detachable lid. My friend told me that when me and my husband were having intercourse we needed to put the stone container on our nightstand with the figure in it. And we also needed to take the lid off. We were eventually able to conceive and I became pregnant. This all happened soon after we used the fertility god, so who knows, maybe it helped some. After you are finally able to get pregnant, you are supposed to pass the idol to another person to help them have a baby. There was also something else that my mother gave me to help with conception. It was a pie made out of the citron fruit, which is similar to a lemon and used during the Jewish holiday Sukkot, during which it’s called an Etrog. I don’t think you’re really supposed to eat the fruit because it tastes terrible, but my mother insisted as she said it was sure to help. The citron pie definitely did not help.”

Analysis: There are surely many examples of folk medicines that do actually have effective medical benefits; however, there are also surely examples that have no medical benefits whatsoever. There is a category of folk medicine that does fall in between the aforementioned effects, and that is things that bring health through the placebo effect. This is when a subject experiences a response to something, usually a medicine, but only because they expected that thing to produce that result. The fertility god and the citron pie that the informant spoke about definitely do not work based on this effect because, of course, you cannot experience pregnancy unless you are actually pregnant. However, I do find it interesting that she only became pregnant after she used the folk medicine to which she did not have any objection but not after using the medicine which she very much did not like. While there is no way of knowing if a fertility god can actually help someone become pregnant, it can still functions as a ritualistic folk item.

 

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