USC Digital Folklore Archives / Foodways

Texas Sheet Cake

Informant: My mother found culinary recipes that have been passed on through generations, and become a part of our family folklore

Original Piece: I can claim this recipe because I’ve made several adjustments to the one passed on to me from Grandmama. This is THE go-to cake—birthday, graduation, family reunion. Growing up we always ate it on a blanket in the front yard with homemade peppermint ice cream while we watched the fireworks. My mother-in-law always requests I bring it to any family function. You will thank me for this cake.

Context of Performance: My mother was sifting through old family recipes to send to me and my sister at college, so we wouldn’t forget our “southern heritage”.

Thoughts about the Piece: I liked this recipe because it is an example of a recipe that has been passed down in my family for several generations, and was originally grabbed from a copy of “Southern Living”. However, over the years, the women in my family have changed and altered it to produce the best form of this, which is a good example of what folklore is.


Tamil Wedding Food

Informant: My friend’s family is from southern India, and every few years they go back in the summer for family weddings. This past summer she went to three, and recounted some of the traditions for me.
Original Piece: “Wedding food is a tradition, because we always have the same thing. You have your vegetarian floor, and your non-vegetarian floor. and rows of tables, and rows and rows of banana leaves. And you sit, and men come around with these huge silver—what are they called… like a canister. Like a really big canister and a ladle of food. and they put it on your plate unless you say you don’t want it. Like you have biryani…Tandoori chicken…and some other vegetable dishes.
But not everyone can eat at the same time because there’s too many people.
There’s another part of the wedding where the bride and groom stand at the end of the stage and people come and talk to them individually. So you’re either waiting for food or waiting to talk to the bride and groom. And people go up and talk to the bride and the groom, and give their gift, and take a picture. And so the bride and grooms can talk to everyone at the wedding, and thank them.”
Context of Piece: My friend was showing me pictures from this summer, and I asked her to tell me a bit more about their weddings customs.
Thoughts about the Piece: This piece was interesting, as it brought some order and sense to an otherwise crowded proceeding.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

An Easter Tradition

Nationality: Jamaican

Primary Language: English

Other Language(s): French

Age: 59

Residence: New York City, USA

Performance Date: April 13, 2017 (Skype)


Carlton is a 59-year old man, born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica who is a superintendent of a large apartment building in New York City. He immigrated to the United States over 38 years ago.


Interviewer: Good Morning. Do you have a family story about when you lived in Jamaica.


Informant: “Sure. I am from Jamaica and in Jamaica traditionally during Easter we bake buns and cheese and that is what we have for gifts that we eat that during Easter and so my father would always would always go and we would make these buns in ovens so we would light the fire and bake these buns and get them glazed and sell them to all the people, and give them as gifts and so on. So Easter is was a very traditional thing where people go to church and worship on Good Friday and it was very quiet. No one in in the store or shop so you just had people go to church and worshiping. That was a tradition of my family and others in Jamaica”


Interviewer:  You mentioned that your father would bake the buns at Easter. Is this common for Jamaica men to bake on Easter?


Informant: “No I don’t think so as far as I know, I can only speak about my father. It was a very special indeed special memory for me and me sisters.  He never did anything in the kitchen.  He said that was women’s work. But on Easter this was his special tradition and that he had to carry out and me and my sisters were expected to help him out. He was so so very serious about this. He would even wrap our hands if he caught us tasting the sweet glaze of the buns.  I just remember him being so proud that he did this and I think he was doing this so we would always think of him, he died a few years back, when me and sisters celebrate Easter with our families”.


Interviewer: Do you carry on this tradition with your family?


Informant: “Sorry to say I do not. I feel this was a um very very special thing that my father did and I cherish this memory of him when I celebrate Easter with my family here in the US.”


Interviewer: Thank You and I wish you a Happy Easter.



Thoughts about the piece:  

Food is a powerful memory aid to immigrants like my informant. This British import is a Good Friday treat, which may have roots in ancient Babylon. It has been adapted for Jamaicans by the addition of local molasses. The cross bun song can be found at: Here is a recipe for making homemade Jamaican hot cross buns:







Family Recipe

“My dad taught me this recipe, it’s not even an ethnic recipe, just a family recipe for this cool dipping sauce.  You combine paprika and garlic powder and a little water and then this other ingredient I’m forgetting, but it makes for this really good, kind of dry sauce that goes really well on a hamburger or something.  My dad said he picked it up from a diner he worked at, so I guess that means this recipe went from some unimportant condiment at a diner to a staple ingredient at all our family’s meals, which is pretty cool.  But I’m not sure he’s telling the truth about picking up the recipe from a diner, I feel like that doesn’t make enough sense for it to be true, because I’ve worked in restaurants before and no such recipe exchanging has happened around me, but nonetheless, now that sauce recipe is a staple of our family.”


This origin story of a family recipe is super cool because it subverts two common tropes of family recipes: that they are long traditions passed down from the ancestors of the family, and that they are secrets.  Not only did this family recipe start in a diner that the father of the informant just happened to work at of all places, but the informant clearly has no regard for who hears the ingredients, and they are listed very clearly above.  Still, the recipe has quickly managed to become an important part of the family, so it makes me think that maybe this is the beginning of what will become a long family tradition with this family.


Brazilian Brigadeiro dessert

Ricardo is a 20 year old student at USC. Before USC, he lived in San Paolo, Brazil his entire life. He grew up with little to no American influence. One thing he spoke of that was very different was the food in Brazil. He spoke of his favorite dessert:

“Brigadeiro, it’s like a chocolate sweet with cream of milk and butter and sprinkles, my mom used to make them for me when I got good grades”

Ricardo said these were very special for him as he did not get these very often. He said his mom would specially make them for him as he said when he got good grades. She said she would also make them and bring them to big parties where families gathered. I think this dessert looks very good and I would definitely love to try it. I have never even heard of it.



Canadian middle school food ritual

Tim Marino is a 20 year old engineering student at USC. He was born in Calgary, Alberta and had lived there his entire life. Tim grew up a victim of Canadian stereotypes, playing hockey and eating maple syrup. The maple syrup part was actually a big part of his life and his daily eating habits, as he said the maple syrup in Canada was plentiful.

“In middle school people would come out with trays of ice and would put maple syrup in it and put a stick in it, and would freeze them to make maple syrup popsicles.”

Tim said that this was a very popular thing to do in middle school, and that each new generation of kids would learn it from the older years in middle school and would do it themselves, and it became a very popular lunchtime snack. I find this interesting as for one it reinforces the maple syrup stereotype of Canada, and for two it is not something I have seen performed in the US.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

“Your mother-in-law loves you” Greek Tradition

Informant: The informant is Aliki, an eighteen-year-old young woman who grew up in Yonkers, New York. She is a freshman at Concordia University in Irvine, California. She is of Greek descent.

Context: We sat on the floor of my dorm room at the University of Southern California when Aliki visited me during her spring break from college.

Original Script:
Informant: This takes place when you are eating at the dinner table. Say my aunt will call us. In Greek, my mother will say to my aunt, “Your mother-in-law loves you.” When she says this, my aunt will understand that she is at the table eating. That way, she doesn’t have to explain to my aunt that she is eating; she just gets it. This phone conversation has to take place between two Greeks because you speak the phrase in Greek. My aunt, or whoever is on the phone, and my mom can laugh it off, and my aunt will tell her to enjoy her meal and hang up. My mother taught me this when I was about thirteen. That’s around the time I saw her do this for the first time. I just remember that one day, my mom kept saying it.

Interviewer: Why is this piece of folklore important to you?

Informant: I think it’s just kind of important to know because it’s part of my culture. Also, it’s useful to know because if I called someone and they said that my mother-in-law loves me, I should understand what it means.

Personal Thoughts: I like this piece of folklore a lot because I think it is very unique. It is interesting to me that Greeks have a general understanding of what to do when they hear the phrase, “Your mother-in-law loves you” over the phone. I also find it compelling because it seems that this phrase takes just as long to say as something like, “I’m eating right now. I’ll call you back.” Since the two are just as simple to say, it is interesting that Greeks choose to say something which most people would deem more confusing, rather than just explaining what they are doing.


Matzo Ball Soup Recipe

Informant is grandmother, currently living in Florida having lived most of her life in New Jersey. The following is a family recipe for Matzo Ball Soup which is a traditionally jewish dish served at Passover.


Ingredients (taken down from a handwritten note in the recipe book):

4 large eggs

•¼ cup “schmaltz” rendered chicken fat or coconut oil

•¼ cup chicken stock

•1 cup matzo meal

•¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

•1 to 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger

•2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

•1 teaspoon Allspice


Directions (spoken to me in the kitchen as she prepares to make the soup):

“In a big bowl, put the eggs, schmaltz, chicken stock, matzo, nutmeg, ginger and parsley. Put in 1 teaspoon salt and Allspice. Mix a little with a spoon, and cover. And refrigerate until chilled. I do it overnight.”

“Put the matzo balls in a pan like this (she holds up a medium sized, deep pan) with salted water and boil. With wet hands— they have to be wet— take some of the mix and mold it into the size of a golfball. Put them in boiling water and leave it for about 40 minutes. Then you put them in the soup, that’s it!”



Subject: Culinary

Informant: Phillipe was born in Quebec, Canada and has two sisters and a brother. His family is originally from Quebec, therefore he grew up with french as his native tongue.  He currently studies Finance in California.

Original Script: Poutine is probably the most traditional fast-food like meal in Quebec. It consists of fries and cheese topped with gravy. It is also very affordable, which makes for an excellent late night snack after a long night.

Background information by informant: Although you can find Poutine in many other places in Canada today, the best still remains in Quebec, given that the meal originated there in the first place.

Context of performance: Quick tasty snack when you are in a hurry. Also a go to meal after a night of drinking.

Thoughts: Food is powerful because it can always bring people together. Poutine is a great example of this because it is not limited to any particular social class or group of people. It is a meal which all citizens of Quebec can enjoy and it brings them all together.


Plantane Plates

Subject: Culinary

Informant: Daniel is originally from Guayaquil, a city in the coast of Ecuador.  He is an only child and has just received a diploma in Business. He has lived in California for the past four years, but will be returning to Ecuador in the coming month.

Original Script: Unfortunately, the coast of Ecuador suffers from extreme social inequality. However, these circumstances lead the locals to become extremely resourceful with the little they had. One of the few affordable items in Guayaquil is Plantains. Because of this, there are around 100 different plantain based dishes. This gave the locals the opportunity to diversify their culinary while still maintaining affordable prices.

Background information by informant: Each dish tastes uniquely different, and provides such a distinct palette that you cant even believe that they all stem from the same simple ingredient.

Thoughts: The brilliance of a culture comes from the ability to maximize the available resources in order to make a living. In this way, locals from the coast of Ecuador not only succeeded, but also created a wide range of distinct culinary options with the same basic and abundant resource they could find.