Category Archives: Material

Friendship Bracelets as Folk Art

Main Piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between me (LT) and my informant (AT). 

AT: When I think friendship bracelets, I think of taking strands of embroidery floss, and you knot or braid them in these different patterns, and then when they’re like fully woven, you give them to your friends. The whole idea is you and your friends either make matching ones and swap them, or you can make different ones for each other. Part of the fun in that is picking the colors or patterns you think they’d like. 

LT: But either way you have to make them, and they have to be for the other person, right? 

AT: Yeah, you’re not supposed to make them for yourself… I mean maybe you can? Everyone I know always made them for other people… and honestly I’m sure you can buy them off Etsy or something, but the whole fun in it is the actual process of making them. 

Background:

AT is a 23-year-old female from Los Angeles. She first learned how to make friendship bracelets at a summer camp when she was six years old. Her favorite thing about making friendship bracelets growing up was exchanging them: “I loved how excited my friends would get when I gave them theirs, and I’d always feel really special when they’d give me mine… it was a way we could physically prove to each other that we liked each other I guess.” 

Context: 

AT is one of my relatives with whom I’m quarantining. This piece was collected in our living room as we were sitting on the couch. 

Thoughts:

American female friendships are often depicted in the media as being “catty” or fake, but I think that friendship bracelets show how pure they can be in real life. Having gone to an all girls high school, some of my strongest, most loyal relationships are the ones I have with my female friends. In the context of friendship bracelets, girls take it upon themselves at such a young age to learn special patterns and spend time making them for their friends. I still cherish having that experience with mine. When we all wore the same friendship bracelets, it felt like we were all wearing the same jersey, and we were on the same team. These bracelets are generally made by little girls who might not be eloquent enough to express their emotions accurately, and friendship bracelets are a beautiful way to nonverbally show your friends how much you care, knowing that they’ll understand and likely reciprocate. 

Grapes and Red Underwear on New Years Eve

Context:

MV is a 2nd generation Mexican-American from New Mexico. Half of her family is of Japanese-Mexican descent and much of her extended family lives in Mexico. I received this story from her in a video conference call from our respective homes. Her aunt taught her this and said it’s a Venezuelan tradition.

Text:

MV: You’re supposed to eat thirteen grapes in the last ten seconds of the new year. And if you do it, then that’s good luck. Also if you wear red underwear.

JS: Why grapes?

MV: I don’t know, that one’s just a weird challenge.

Thoughts:

Ritual transitional ceremonies such as new year celebrations often involve superstition and folk belief, as ways of marking a transition from one period to another. In other iterations of this practice, you eat twelve grapes, one for each month of the year. The element of skill and difficulty make this tradition a fun and competitive ritual. The tradition can be traced back to Spain, where the bourgeoise adopted it from the French, who ate grapes and drank champagne on the new year. The tradition was picked up by members of other classes who ate the grapes likely to make fun of the upper class. The fact that one is scarfing these grapes at a high speed can be seen as a mocking gesture towards the elite, who would daintily eat the grapes with their champagne, a way to mimic and critique the ways in which they cover up their pernicious and consumptive practices of economic exploitation with a mask of civility and decadence.

As for the red underwear, red symbolizes lust, luck, and life in many cultures. Being a Spanish tradition, the use of red resonates with the colors of the nation. The choice of garment suggests sexual overtones in this bit of folk superstition, with the new year as a time for new beginnings, creation, and sexual proliferation. The belief also, for the duration of the new years celebration, allows undergarments to be a topic of conversation, allowing for a less sexually repressed and euphemistic celebration, with the topic coming up more apparently to the surface.

Oliebollen

Context:

NS, my father, is a 55-year-old Dutch immigrant to the US. He grew up in the small town of Delft. He told me about this new year’s eve food tradition that is observed where he grew up.

Text:

NS: New years is one of the most important holidays for the Dutch. On new years’ eve, we would gather together, there would be on the TV a comedian doing a run-down of the year, and we would have oliebollen (oil balls). They are a food you only eat during new years and you can get them from a stand on the street in late December. My mom used to make them. To make them, you put some flour and yeast together in a bowl with some sugar to let the mixture rise. Then you add all kinds of stuff in it: nuts, apple, raisins, cranberries, other dried fruits. You plop them into balls and fry them in oil. Then once you’re done you can put some powdered sugar on them.

Thoughts:

The informant, even though he now lives in San Francisco, makes this treat every year as a member of a global nationality. He likes oliebollen because he associates the taste with childhood memories and festivities. He told me that the new year is one of the most important and elaborate celebrations for the Dutch, so it makes sense that he wants to keep this foodway alive as he carries out his identity as a Dutch-American. I have eaten them every new year as well, the informant is my dad, and I have to say that the taste definitely reminds me of that particular time. Since they are only consumed once a year for this event, they take on a special significance and anticipation which leads me to savor each bite when I get the chance. The food tradition is a way for my dad to keep his sense of Dutch-ness alive as he lives abroad in a foreign land.

Pannenkouken

Context:

Pannenkoeken (pun-nĕ-koo-ken) are a traditional Dutch meal. They are large and flat pancakes with the thinness of crepes. In my family, we enjoy them for dinner on special occasions such as birthdays and holidays. I collected this piece from my father, who emigrated to the US from the Netherlands as an adult and grew up in the town of Delft. I asked him to show me how to make the recipe one night at our home in San Francisco.

Text:

NS: “Alright first you start by putting on some vegetable soup, I do some bouillon cubes and whatever vegetables you have lying around. Then you start the pannenkoeken by putting flour in a big bowl.

JS: “how much flour do you use?”

NS: “Just some flower, as much as you want. (laughs) and some salt. mix it up a bit to get rid of the clumps… there, perfect! Then crack an egg into it and mix it up, add two eggs or so mixing in between.”

JS: (I add three eggs absentmindedly)

NS: “Haha, perfect, you want to get it nicely mixed… then add some milk gradually. You want to mix it all the while so that it stays smooth.”

(I mix vigorously, adding milk little by little until we have a soupy batter)

NS: “Then we heat up the pan. You want to move the bowl over here near the stove. Rub butter around in the pan and then pour in a spoonful of the batter, and you want to start moving the pan to spread the batter almost as soon as you start pouring.”

(I pour in the batter. the pan is not hot enough, so the batter just sits at the bottom.)

NS: “Ok yeah we tried a little too soon. Just wait until the pan heats up a bit.”

He puts a plate on top of the simmering pot of soup and explains that this is where we will put the finished pannenkoeken to stay hot. I pour more batter once the pan is hotter and then tilt the pan back and forth to spread the runny batter all the way around the pan. This takes some practice, but I eventually work out a way to make nice, even, golden brown pannenkoeken and set them on the plate. My dad shows me how to fill the last few with Gouda cheese and fold them over on top of each other. I heft the pot of soup along with the full plate on top and set it on the dinner table. We eat the soup first and then start on the cheese pancakes, topping them with cumin and nutmeg. They are rich and creamy. We then set ourselves upon the “sweet” pancakes underneath, topping them with maple syrup, brown sugar, walnut pieces, and cinnamon. In the past, we have used berries and Nutella as well. I ask my dad where he learned this recipe and what it means for him.

NS: “My mom used to make them for the family, it was always an exciting treat for the kids. I like them, sometimes I just get the craving.”

JS: “Are there any differences between the way you make them and the way your mom used to make them?”

NS: “No not really. The soup is essentially the same and the batter too. The one thing I changed was folding them over onto the cheese, putting it in the middle. I think my mom put the cheese on top. That was my contribution to the tradition. (laughs)”

Thoughts:

Eating pannenkoeken is one of the cherished traditions in my household. It is one of the few Dutch recipes that we continue to perform. A recently naturalized US citizen, this piece of folklore helps my dad to remember his family from the country from which he emigrated, many of whom have since passed away and some of whom he keeps in touch with long-distance. The environment in which he grew up, the small town of Delft, is radically different from the American city of San Francisco, and I think traditions like these help him to maintain his sense of identity as an expatriate. For me, who grew up in San Francisco, this tradition gives me a sense of my dad’s history as well as my own Dutch heritage, a means of holding on to what makes one special in a country of immigrants from all over the world. The task of making the pannenkoeken requires some practice, and while the recipe is simple and often approximated, one must have a feeling for how the batter flows, what temperature the pan should be, how to store the finished cakes so that they stay hot, when to add butter, and how much batter to add per pannekoek. The process is like an elaborate choreography in the kitchen so it feels much more special to make them well since doing so requires practice and instruction. The differences between my dad’s and his mother’s pannenkoeken are dependent on the available ingredients: my dad might make the soup differently, and my grandmother might have used different kinds of cheese and, as my dad mentions, a different technique for making the cheese pancakes The cheese we use at home is imported from Holland.

Food has an intimate relation with memory and identity. What we consume is what we are made up of, and tastes can connect us intimately to a community and way of life. Making pennenkoeken is one way my father retains his identity as a Dutch-American immigrant, and a way in which he transmits this identity to his American-raised children, passing down a memory of warm family dinners.

Homemade Anti-Viral Mask

Context:

The informant (MS) is a San Franciscan in her twenties who lives in a small apartment in Bernal Heights. She made these masks for my parents and I for use during the COVID-19 pandemic. California legislators issued an order to shelter in place and leave home only for essential errands. The government has recommended the use of protective masks in order to lessen the likelihood of respiratory transmission. She taught herself to sew the masks by reverse-engineering a homemade mask given to her by a neighbor and by watching several instructional you-tube videos. She made them because “it feels more personalized and cute rather than wearing the medical store bought masks.” She told me that it was “a fun project to occupy my time.”

Text:

Thoughts:

This is but one example of the many folkloric responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, authorities told us that masks would not help to protect us, a statement which intended to prevent surgical mask hoarding and mask shortages for healthcare workers. The CDC now recommends the use of cloth face coverings and has instructions published on their website on how to construct cloth masks from various household items such as t-shirts, bits of extra cloth, bandanas, and elastic. The construction of these homemade masks, owing to the difficulty of obtaining factory-made surgical masks, has proliferated as a form of expressive material culture in its own right. This mask, with its floral design, improvised folds, and double-sided fabrics is an example of one of these expressive, fashionable, yet practical coronavirus masks. For my informant, who has been unemployed due to the virus, the home project of creating these masks has helped to pass the time while in quarantine. It is also a means of helping out her family and friends. The colorful design expresses an indomitable playfulness and aesthetic concern invested even in the practical, state-mandated, and utilitarian cloth mask. It seems to express hope during the pandemic, or at least a care for preserving creativity and self-expression through what one wears. These masks have had their own fashion lives in the US, changing and responding to changes of style. People have been adapting their masks to express their own identities and even political beliefs. They have become a visual symbol for life in the time of coronavirus and a platform for self-expression and stylization throughout the suppressive necessities of social distancing.

Derby Day

Main Piece:

The informant described to me a tradition at her all-girls, private high school known as Derby Day. It is a day at the very beginning of the year, reserved for just the high school aged girls because the school is for grades 5-12. The high school girls would not go to class in the morning and instead play games and have cheer contests. 

In the afternoon, each grade was required to bring a different product. Freshman always had to bring ice cream. Sophomores had to bring oreos and jell-o. Juniors had to bring chocolate syrup. Seniors had to bring whipped cream. After the morning activities, the student council would “dump all of these things into kiddie pools on the field. When the set-up was complete, the freshman and sophomores had to sit in big circles” said the informant. Then the seniors would dump all of the jell-o, oreos, ice cream, etc. on the freshman and the juniors would do the same to the sophomores. The informant explained it was sort of an affectionate thing, “if you were a freshman and had a senior friend you would just get disgusting but it was out of love”.

After all of the dumping was complete, there was a water slide the informant’s school would rent. This was the only way to get cleaned off but it was an unspoken rule that the seniors could skip anyone in line and the juniors could skip anyone but seniors. So the freshman would wait in line to get cleaned off but never could.

Background:

This occurred at the informant’s all-girls, private, Episcopalian high school in Memphis, Tennessee. It was an ongoing tradition that girls looked forward to every year.

Context:

The informant explained this tradition to me when they were reminiscing about their high school experience.

Thoughts:

This tradition acts as a way for the high school aged girls to feel as though they have really grown up at the start of the year. It is common for students to go through types of hazing as underclassmen and then transition into being the hazers. Being able to dump chocolate syrup on someone’s head is looked at like a rite of passage at this high school. As the informant explained it to me, she held the day in such reverence it clearly is an important memory to her. She included the feelings of being an underclassman and upperclassman, participating in this. This tradition emphasizes the changes to the high school classes, as newfound juniors those students can establish themselves as upperclassmen by getting the opportunity to dump oreos on the heads of their peers. It is a funny, but important way to demonstrate the girls have grown over the past year.

The Philly Cheesesteak Challenge

Main Piece:

This is a transcription of the informant explaining the Philly Cheesesteak Challenge. 

So basically it’s this tradition that you do during your second semester of your senior year of high school, it’s mostly people in the DMV you know D.C, Maryland, Virginia. The point of the challenge is you’ll meet up with friends at school at just a regular school day after you’ve gotten into college and your attendance doesn’t really matter any more. And you guys like get in the car together and then when the first bell rings of the school day you leave your school and you guys drive to phil and get a cheesesteak and take a picture of you doing it and document the whole journey, like vlog it or whatever and get a picture of you doing it. And then you have to drive back to your school with the cheesesteak before the last bell rings and have the evidence. It’s for bragging rights to give you something fun and stupid to do before college.” 

Background:

The informant went to a large public high school in Northern Virginia. This challenge was something he looked forward to starting as a freshman. 

Context:

The informant described this to me when we were comparing high school traditions and experiences. 

Thoughts:

The Philly Cheesesteak Challenge encapsulates a lot of common patterns that occur during liminal moments in people’s lives. The Challenge itself is inherently funny, there is no real prize, just an arbitrary goal to complete before graduation. It gives students a sense of responsibility and freedom before they are actually out in the real world. In the late spring of the year, seniors teeter between students and graduates. The Philly Cheesesteak Challenge allows them to break the rules and be “adults” or graduates for the day to then return to the school setting they have known for the past 12 years of their life. It also allows for friends to accomplish a goal together before they all part and go their separate ways, making the Challenge feel even more important.

The Frozen Fruit Cake

Main Piece:

Informant describing a tradition from the theater at his high school:

“At my high school during the fall play, there was this tradition of giving a frozen fruit cake to the favorite freshman by the senior class. The freshman was someone who was like really funny or helped out a lot or did stuff like that. Then that freshman would hold onto it until they were a senior and then gift it to a freshman and the pattern would continue over and over every year”

Background:

The informant went to a public high school in New Jersey with an active theater department. 

Context:

The fruit cake was gifted after closing night of the play each year. The informant told me about this when discussing traditions in his high school theater department. 

Thoughts:

This tradition mirrors a lot of experiences in an American high school. A lot of importance is put on certain things that in any other sense would not mean anything. This fruit cake is a symbol of honor and importance given by a senior, the most powerful type of person in the eyes of a high school freshman. Outside of high school, the senior/freshman dynamic does not mean anything. The continuation of fruit cakes being given and kept until senior year keeps the theater department connected year after year. It creates value and connection through a frozen dessert that otherwise would not hold weight.

Peace and Chow

Main Piece:

The informant is a member of an outdoors club on campus that has a tradition of doing “Peace and Chow” after every dinner they eat on trail. The informant says “Peach and Chow consists of the two guides of the trip organizing us into a circle. Then we grab hands, right over left to create a criss-cross effect. Once we’re are all connected anyone who is grateful for anything from the day sticks their foot into the middle of the circle. Then they say what they are thankful for. If anyone else in the circle agrees, they all wiggle back and forth. This continues until we’re done saying things we’re thankful for. Then someone in the group recites a quote, probably about nature. After the quote we pass the pulse, which starts from one of the guides squeezing the hand next to them and the squeeze makes it all around the circle. Once the circle is complete we unwind and it’s done”.

Background:

The club has existed on USC’s campus since 2008. Peace and Chow originated with the start of the club but no one knows the direct origin, who started it and why. On each trip there are always two guides and 8-10 participants. The guides are in charge of leading Peace and Chow and it is not required but heavily suggested they do it every trip.

Context:

The ritual of Peace and Chow happens after a meal, most likely dinner, when the group is out in the wilderness either at their campsite or in the backcountry. The informant described this as a ritual that held a lot of importance to them.

Thoughts:

Food is common to surround with certain rituals. In terms of Christianity it is common to pray before every meal. Peace and Chow acts as sort of a “prayer” of thankfulness for these students on their outdoor adventures. It is also common in outdoor communities to try and feel in touch with one’s surroundings. This ritual helps the group remain in touch with each other and the land around them as they are able to grow closer as a group. This ritual creates a sense of community for people that were recently strangers. Food tends to have a way of bringing people together and this tradition adds to that feeling.

Pork and Sauerkraut and Birthday Wishes

Main Piece:

This is a transcription of the informant’s New Year’s Day tradition.

“Every New Year’s Day we always go over to my brother’s house with all the extended family, cousins, aunts, uncles, everyone. He is a really good cook and makes a giant roast pork and sauerkraut meal that we have been doing since we were little. Then New Year’s Day was my mom’s birthday so we’d cut her the first piece and then she’d put a candle in it for her birthday. It was like a fake little pre-birthday celebration with the whole family. She passed away many years ago but we still light the candle and do the whole thing but instead of a birthday wish it’s a wish for the new year for everyone. It’s sweet I think.”

Background:

The informant is from a large German-American family. 

Context:

The informant described this to me when I inquired about her family’s traditions around the holidays. 

Thoughts:

Pork and Sauerkraut is a very common New Year’s food, especially for those of German heritage. The combination of a birthday wish and luck for the new year appears to go hand in hand. There are certain theories as to why pork is associated with luck for the new year, “In Europe hundreds of years ago, wild boars were caught in the forests and killed on the first day of the year. Also, a pig uses its snout to dig in the ground in the forward direction” (Sherrow 28). The symbolism of a pig digging forward is meant to represent forward movement for those that eat the pig in the coming year. The luck of pork and a birthday wish create a hopeful start to the year for this family  

Sherrow, Victoria. “EAT FOR LUCK!” Child Life, vol. 86, no. 1, Jan, 2007, pp. 28-29. ProQuest, http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy2.usc.edu/docview/216762697?accountid=14749.