USC Digital Folklore Archives / Foodways
Customs
Foodways
general
Holidays
Material

Venezuelan Hallacas

Context: The informant was speaking of Venezuelan foods eaten during Christmas, and she began to expand on this recipe and the history of the food.

 

Piece:

Informant: Ah ok um so one tradition that we Venezuelans try to do every year is hallacas. And hallacas is a dish that originally comes from when we were conquered by the spaniards and it was it is made with, it is like a tamale but it combines um chicken, pork, olive, raisin, and it is said that it is the leftover from the slaves, what they ate. And the tradition is that family gets together and one person prepares the inside and one person cuts the leaves um and it is actually wrapped in plantain leaves and it’s a tradition that goes from family from family, and there is a saying that the best hallaca is always from your mom. And every family has their own way of doing it.

Collector: Is there any specific part that this matters to you

Informant: I actually haven’t done it myself, but in my family I remember my mom would put boiled eggs on it and that is specific to region I am from, Puerto Ordaz. Other people will put other extra ingredients depending on the region or family.

 

Background: The informant, a middle aged Venezuelan woman, currently lives in Boston but lived the majority of her life in Venezuela. She still practices a lot of Venezuelan traditions, especially in her cuisine. The hallacas are an example of a Christmas dish in Venezuela.

Analysis: This recipe is very historically connected to the Venezuelan people. The dish is said to be made of the scraps that the slaves were left to eat during the Spanish reign. This implies that this tradition has been practiced since then and continues to be a major part of the Venezuelan cuisine. It also reflects how history is important to the Venezuelan people, as it is displayed in the recipes of their dishes. The community aspect in the cooking of the dish is also very unique, as it brings together the family to work together during Christmas time– a time that is typically focused on family. It also has multiplicity and variation within the recipe, as it becomes personalized to the family and/or the region they are from.

Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Foodways

There are gods in Rice

Background Info/Context:

Yigi and I were chatting about things that parents have said to their kids to make sure they were being studious, obedient, or respectful. She told me about a story that she heard that parents told children to make sure they finished their food.

 

Piece:

Yigi – “Parents would tell me that in each rice, there lives a little god. And if you waste any, they will be upset and bring you bad luck, so you have to finish your food.”

 

Sophia – “Did you believe that as a kid?”

 

Y – “Uh, my parents didn’t tell me that story, and a friend of mine told me about it.”   

 

Thoughts:

Children, including myself, don’t usually think about waste and often have tendencies to leave one bite of food, or be greedy and spoon a lot onto their plates and not end up finishing at the end of the meal. This story was probably told to children to scare them into finishing all of their food, but more importantly, to not be wasteful. Luck is heavily tied in Chinese culture, and people try to bring as much of it towards them as they can, by wearing red, having statues of dragons, etc. So bringing about bad luck by wasting food would be squandering the other efforts they’ve put to bring luck to them.

 

Customs
Foodways
general

Cantonese hospitality custom

The informant is a USC student and friend of mine from Bangkok, Thailand whose family is Cantonese. She came over to make dumplings at my house, and while we were eating, she kept putting dumplings on my plate for me. This is what she told me when I asked her why she was doing that.
——————–
“In cantonese culture, when you’re sharing a meal with someone, you would have all the plates with food on them, for example, like all the dumplings would be in one plate–if you’re sharing dumplings with someone, you would always take the dumpling, dip it in the sauce, and put it on their plate, and then you would get one for yourself. And when you finish yours, you put another one on their plate. And then, when you get to the last one, you have to put it on their plate, so they get to eat it.”
——————–
I found that this was an interesting custom that seemed to reflect something I have seen in many cultures, specifically non-Western ones; many cultures emphasize the importance of serving others before yourself, or respecting others before yourself. I have seen this reflected in my own Ethiopian culture, which emphasizes the importance of attending to others before yourself in almost everything from serving food to giving houseguests your bed and sleeping on the couch or floor. This custom is also part of a larger customary lore that exists almost everywhere but seems to emerge more when people move away from their home countries: when engaging in the customs of hospitality from their native countries, they are expressing a sense of nostalgia for that community, for the “old country.” These customs also tend to become simplified over time as cultures mix; in more cosmopolitan societies, a lot of the nuance and specificity of certain customs tends to fade away. We can now see them in more generalized customs, such as asking someone whether they would like a glass of water when they visit your home, which are more simple, symbolistic nods to that culture of hospitality.

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 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.

 

Foodways
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Oyster stew on Christmas

Text

 

INFORMANT: We had a nasty tradition growing up that I absolutely hated.

 

ME: What was it?

 

INFORMANT: Well papa was really German and, I guess, proud of his German heritage, and it’s an old German tradition to eat oyster stew at big meals, so he made us all eat the stew at Christmas dinner even though none of us liked it. I don’t even think he liked it at the end of the day.

 

Background

The informant’s father’s grandparents were the ones who raised him and were from Germany. This close line to Germany made the informant’s father extremely proud of his heritage, especially because of the immense respect he had for his grandparents.

 

Context

The informant currently lives in Dallas but grew up in the small town of Garner, Iowa (population: 2,000 people).

 

Thoughts

Tradition plays a crucial part in how one identifies one’s self. The informant’s father clearly identifies heavily with his german heritage, and wants to hold onto all German traditions, even if he does not necessarily like the tradition itself. These traditions give him some sense of being apart of a group and, therefore, being apart of something bigger than himself.

 

Foodways
Material

Swedish Coffee Cake

Main Piece
Swedish Coffee Cake – its very good. Its key ingredient is cardamom, which is a spice. You make the whole thing from scratch, so after you make the dough, you braid, you roll it out, and then depending on what you want in it, its usually sugar, cinnamon, and raisins, some people like raisins, some don’t, and then nuts, and then you roll it up, and then when you’re making Swedish Coffee Cake, you make it in a circle. And then you take scissors and then cut it all the way around so you can flip the sides. We made this all the time really – it was so good, the kids loved it, so it wasn’t really for a specific occasion, its just what you did. I stopped making it because kneading dough is really hard and tough on the hands and arms, unless you were going to buy the dough, but I always made it. It is hard though, you have to bake the dough, punch it down, and then it rises again, and you have to punch it back down, it’s a lot of work.

Background
The informant of this piece was born in America, yet her family comes from Sweden. She was taught this traditional recipe from her mother, and would make it very often for her children. Her children affirmed loving it and having it all the time, and mentioned they wish they still made it.

Context
The informant of this piece is a 79-year-old women, born in America to the family of Swedish immigrants. The information was collected outside a home in Palm Springs, California on April 20th, 2019.

Analysis
I wish that this traditional recipe had been passed down and used in my family! I would love to be able to celebrate my historical culture, even if through specific, traditional recipes! I find it really interesting that I have never tried it – even with the informant helping make important meals shared by the whole family, it has not been made, to my knowledge. I think it really interesting that specifically Swedish coffee cake is said to be made in a circle – I feel like most cakes are circular, although the use of scissors to flip the dough is interesting. It makes sense that it became harder and harder to make as the informant got older, but a big part of me wishes that wasn’t the case.

Foodways
Material
Myths
Narrative

Kalo: A Staple Plant of Hawaii

Abstract: Kalo is a plant that is named after the stillborn of Sky Father (Wakea) and Mother Earth (Papa), two Hawaiian entities. Kalo is a main staple for Hawaiians culturally, but is mostly used for food. When born, Kalo was a stillborn, and his parents buried him in the ground. His mother was so sad that she began to cry and, from her tears hitting the soil, the plant, Kalo, began to grow where her son was buried. Kalo is used in many traditional Hawaiian dishes and serves as a symbol for respecting the earth.

 

Background: DM is a 20 year-old Hawaiian American going to college in California. She grew up her entire life in Hawaii and is very accustomed to the folklore there. She can not trace back the origin of the folklore or when she learned it because it has surrounded her for her entire life. After one piece of Hawaiian folklore came up on a work retreat, I asked her to share the most important ones to her on a later date.

Kalo:

DM: Kalo is the origin of so many Hawaiian things, but mostly for food. There’s lau lau, which is the pig roast that is wrapped in Kalo, and poi which is this purple paste made out of Kalo. Both are like traditionally Hawaiian. So anyways, there are these two entity things, Sky Father and Mother Earth. Wakea and Papa. They have human children somehow I don’t know (laughs), but Kalo was the name of one of their children who died when he was born. Then Papa buried the stillborn and she was so sad about it that she cried, and her tears went into the soil. Then, out came Kalo.

S: Does anything happen if you disrespect the Kalo?

DM: The earth is everything to us. I don’t know. Bad harvest maybe.

 

Interpretation: The connection between Kalo being a product of nature (the sky and the earth) and also a main food staple showcases the connection that the Hawaiian people have with nature. Not only do they rely on nature for their mythological origin stories, but they directly connect it to their survival. The story of Kalo can be used to demonstrate that Mother Earth went through a lot of pain in order to provide food in kalo. Since she went through so much pain to feed the people, Hawaiians should be respectful to her and thank her by taking care of the land. This thought process is demonstrated when DM states “the earth is everything to us.” The origin stories reflect this close relationship to the planet that Hawaiians share. Since the foundations of being Hawaiian are to respect the planet, the main stories on which people grow up on encapsulate this mindset and ingrain it in the minds of the youth.

 

Customs
Folk medicine
Foodways
Material

Jewish Penicillin – Chicken Soup

Genre: Folk Food/Medicine

 Abstract: Jewish penicillin is chicken soup. It spans across all religions, but is known as Jewish tradition that is used to heal injuries and illness. The recipe appears to be passed down through the mother’s lineage and is said to make people feel better and heal the soul and mind.

 

Background: The interviewee, referred to as RD, is a Jewish-American mother living in the south. She grew up in a Jewish household and has not strayed from the religion. She practices conservative Judaism and attends Temple on a monthly basis. The item of folklore in topic is chicken soup, also known as, Jewish Penicillin. The topic came up when a member of a household came down with a head cold and RD suggested she make chicken soup, a tradition she learned from her mother. A couple days after, the interview occurred.

 

Interview:

S: Okie dokie, I’m going to start with where did you first like learn about how chicken soup was Jewish penicllin?

RD: From my mom. Yeah passed down. Whenever I was sick, she always made chicken soup.

S: Do you see this as something common across like the Jewish religion?

RD: Oh definitely. Even when my kids go to go to college, Hillel1 sends notes out to the parents: if your kids get sick, and you wanna send them chicken soup with matzo balls. Let us know and we will send it to them. It’s universally known to every Jew and non-jew, actually. It spans religions.

S: So do you see this in Christianity at all?

RD: Well it’s not in Christianity, but even Christians know about chicken soup. I mean when (mentions Christian friend) had back surgery and stuff, I brought him chicken soup and he was like “Oh, Jewish penicillin this will make me better.” So it’s definitely, it’s outside of just the Jewish religion, but, I don’t, I mean if you’re asking if Catholics are making chicken soup, I highly doubt it. (laughs)

S: All right. But if there is a traditional way to prepare this Jewish chicken soup, that’s different than regular just chicken soup. What is it?

RD: Yeah, well yeah. You use a kosher chicken. I’m just trying to think what else is, uh, I never made a I never made a not kosher traditional chicken soup. And then a lot of time people put the matzo balls2 which regular chicken soup doesn’t have.

S:  Do you think that it actually works or is it kind of just like a a thing that you know, it’s kind of placebo effect?

RD: (3 seconds) I don’t know, but every time people are sick, chicken soup always makes them feel better. (laughs) In their soul and their mind. It does work. Yeah. There’s been so many like articles I’ve read ya know, how does chicken soup help so much?

 

1: A place for Jewish collegiate students to worship and attend synagogue and services throughout the year.

2: A traditionally Jewish food that is unleavened  to replace noodles during the holiday of Passover when only unleavened food can be consumed.

 

Interpretation:

While RD can not track the origins of Jewish penicillin beyond her mother, she does acknowledge that it is very well known across all religions but especially prevalent in Jewish families. She mentions how her mother passed it down to her which is an interesting point to bring up because Judaism itself is passed through the mother’s bloodline. The matrilineal culture of being Jewish and feeling the need to take care of her family might influence a Jewish mother to use a recipe to take care of her family.

RD also mentions how the term itself, Jewish penicillin, transcends religion and is universal. While she acknowledges that Christians know about the idea of it, she almost guarantees that they do not cook it the same. So why is chicken soup associated with Judaism? In the 12th century, a “Jewish physician, Maimonides, started the chicken soup-as-medicine trend when, in his book, On the Cause of Symptoms, he recommended the broth of hens and other fowl to ‘neutralize body constitution.’” and claimed that it played a role in curing diseases like asthma and leprosy (Koenig). This could be the main root of why chicken soup as a healing aid is known as Jewish penicillin. Most of the people reading Maimonides’ work were most likely Jewish, thus, they were the ones to use his remedy on a regular basis. The popularity of the soup within Jewish religion and its magical healing powers are so closely tied due to the advice of a physician that the Jewish people trusted because he was relatable and shared the same values.

RD also mentions that it heals the soul and the mind and it works as a remedy pretty much every time. So, is it a placebo or does it actually work? Physically, according to a study by Dr. Stephen Rennard, “the soup inhibited the movement of neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell that defends against infection” (Parker-Pope). So, scientifically, it does work. Beyond the heat of the soup breaking up mucus, there is a chemical effect of the soup causing patients to feel better. Mentally, knowing that the food that is being consumed should make one feel better, people are more apt to buy in and use it as a remedy. Whether it be heartbreak, physical ailments, or illnesses, Jewish penicillin seems to have the power to cure across religions and cultures.

 

Citations:

 

Koenig, Leah. “Chicken Soup Around the World.” My Jewish Learning, My Jewish Learning, 15

June 2009, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/chicken-soup-around-the-world/.

 

Parker-Pope, Tara. “The Science of Chicken Soup.” The New York Times, The New York Times,

12 Oct. 2007, well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/12/the-science-of-chicken-soup/.

Customs
Foodways
Holidays
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Passover Plate and Matzah – Symbolic Food at the Passover Seder

Item:

L: This is gonna explain the Passover plate in the middle, not all things are on it ‘cause we have a big bowl of charoset and um, and we don’t have a lamb’s shank bone because yenno, where you gonna find those?  Not really, so we’ll just break something else and uh..

S: For reference, my, uh, my family uses the same lamb shank bone every year.

L: That’s terrifying.

E: Do you actually break it or is it just symbolic?

S: No, it’s just symbolic.

L: So there’s the egg, symbolizes, uh, new life, uh, new beginnings, that sort of thing.  A little bit of the karpas which is the vegetables, spring new life, that sort of thing. Uh, the egg is more of a new life for you as person and the culture, spring is the vegetable.  There’s the charoset, um, and the maror, that’s the herbs and the bitterness.  Um, and the salt water, which is supposed to represent the tears of our ancestors and how much they suffered! Yaaay! Um, it’s all- this is all pretty much about remembrance.  Um, and being- welcome to Judaism, pretty much everything is remembering the troubles you went through in the past so that you, uh you know, remembering your past.  Don’t, you know, take things for granted.  Uh, think about how fortunate you are now that you’re not building pyramids

S: Be afraid of Egyptians and Christians and everyone.

L: But it’s also like, you know, new birth, rememb- like you know, it’s not all bleh.  Um, which comes across in the charoset, which is the mortar between the bricks that we built.  Um, yeah, why is mortar made out of apples and walnuts? I don’t know, it tastes good though.  And we’ll get to that later with the Hillel sandwich.  But that’s what the plate in the middle is supposed to represent.  Um, so karpas! Which is the herbs, pretty much this is the parsley and the salt water.  The herbs, which is the little bitter, dip it into the salt water to remember the tears of our ancestors and the sweat of all the hard work they did when they were enslaved in Egypt. Hahum, once again. Tha- this is gonna be a reoccurring theme guys!

L: So um, we all take a little bit of the parsley… [distributes parsley] and do you typically say the prayer before or after you eat it?

S: Before.

L: Before? Okay, I did- somebody did it after, and I was like [makes a confused face].  I know, I was confused as well. Alright so, um, this is to remember the tears of our ancestors and all the hardships they went through.

All: Blessed are You Lord our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the earth.

L: And then we dip it in the salt water.

L: Yachatz.  Matzah! What is matzah? It’s unleavened bread, because when we left Egypt, we didn’t have time to let our bread rise, um, ‘cause we were in such a hurry.  So we left Egypt in a hurry and the bread baked on the backs of the Jews who were walking through the desert, um, on their long journey.  So that’s what matzah is, we don’t eat any bread with wheat, or basically leavened bread this night, um, to signify that.. um, and we will break it in half.  So what we do is we break it in half, and hide the smaller piece, uh, and this is the Afikomen which is our “dessert” for the Passover uh, but yenno real dessert, it’s- it’s a modern thing. But what we do is we hide this somewhere in the area and then all the children go and find it and a lot of the time if you find it, you get a prize or something like that, um, I was thinking the people who could find it are the people who have not participated in Passover before.

S: In case you were wondering, as the oldest cousin, I did find the Afikomen every year.

L: I never found the Afikomen!

S: My grandma got dollar coins.  So it was a dollar, but it was a special dollar.

[Continuation of the Seder dinner, primarily the telling of the Story of Passover]

L: The pesach, which is the lamb bone that we don’t have.  No one actually uses roasted beets

S: That’s true

L: So that’s why I didn’t even think about it.  It’s the sacrifice that God passed over the Israelites’ houses with the tenth plague, um, what they did is they painted lamb’s blood on their doorways so that God would pass over their doorway and not kill their firstborn. So that’s what the shank bone is for, the blood of the- the sacrifice of both the firstborns of the Egyptians also the lambs that we painted blood with.

[Second Glass of Wine]

[The Second Urchatz – Washing of Hands]

L: Blessing over matzah, so now we get to eat the matzah.  This is eating the unleavened bread so you can crack off a little piece.

All: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His laws and commanded us to eat matzah.

S: Whenever you make matzah at home, it’s circular.

L: It’s supposed to look like this ‘cause that’s how they made it back in the day.  However, you know, factory processed matzah.

S: This is in fact why you have matzah that’s not Kosher for Passover ‘cause they were too lazy to get a rabbi in there.  Or too cheap.

L: The maror, okay the bitter herbs. Here’s the horseradish.  This is the bitter herbs, um, remembering the bitterness and pain, again, of our ancestors.  Yep.  It sucked being slave so what you do is take a little bit of the horseradish.  If you’re feeling the pain of your ancestors, you get a big ol’ glob on there but if you’re not really feeling the pain of the ancestors. This- this would also be a competition.  Whoever could eat the most bitter- the most maror, would be the most remember-y Jew.

S: What my family does is we’d chop up the horseradish and take a teeny tiny little bite.

All: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His laws and commanded us to eat bitter herbs.

L: Yaay, the best part, the charoset. So charoset, anyone remember?

Participant: It’s the spackle and the mortar!

L: Yeah! Cool. So what we do is that we make a Hillel sandwich.  Hillel was a famous, ah, um.. is he a rabbi?

S: He was a rabbi, they’re all rabbis.

L: Yeah, he was a famous religious figure in Judaism who made the- who would- this is what we name after, Hillel.

L: So what we do is we take the mortar, there’s no prayer for this funny enough, you take – if you want, you don’t have to – a little bit of the radish, the bitter.

S: You kinda have to.

L: You do.

S: You kinda have to, but you drown it out with the charoset.

L: Now the charoset, oh so we take it ‘cause we still remember the bitterness, but we put in the charoset ‘cause we- because it’s also the hope of the future and the- the taste of the joys of life.  So there’s the sweetness outweighs the bitter, but you still need the bitter to remember.

S: In case you were wondering, for this and the previous thing, most people take like a teeny teeny little bite.

L: Oh yeah, no- no one ever really goes super hard.  That was just the first time ‘cause someti- it’s always a competition, especially if there are kids.

 

Context:

This recorded excerpt is only parts of the Seder dinner I attended that reveal the symbolism of food at Passover.  I collected this piece as the leader of the Seder, denoted by ‘L’ in the excerpts above, was going through the ritual agenda.  That being said, it should be noted that these excerpts were not consecutive in the procession.  In some locations there are brackets with the rituals that came in between certain sections.

The primary informants of the Seder dinner were two students from the University of Southern California.  They are both Jewish and both grew up celebrating Passover and attending Seders with their families.  As such, throughout the transcription, there are places where one of the informants may have an additional comment regarding something their family did specifically or what their family may have changed from the a more traditional Seder as prescribed by a guide book called the Haggadah.  For example, typically three days of Seder are observed, on Friday, Saturday, then Sunday, but both informants mentioned how their families typically only did one.  Both the informants also talked about the Haggadah they used in their families, but the guide book was not a means of learning the rituals or the traditions by far.  It served as amore of a refresher and catalog of knowledge on the stories that are told through the night.  People would actually learn about the rich symbolism and reasoning behind Seder as they experience it and partake in it.

 

Analysis:

The Passover Seder is very rich in food symbolism, as seen in the excerpt of the dinner I attended above.  The food itself does not inherently hold meaning, but it is the context in which it is presented and consumed in which the meaning arises.  The choice of a particular food to hold meaning may have different origins as well.  Whereas matzah is a literal representation of the unleavened bread that baked on the backs of the Jewish people as they traveled through the desert, some of the other items on the plate have physical connections to their intended meaning.  For example, the bitterness of the horseradish, or the maror, was meant to parallel the bitterness and pain of suffering in Egypt.  The charoset, though, a delicious mixture of apples and walnuts, is supposed to represent the mortar and spackle between the bricks of the pyramids.  There is not quite any apparent connection here as opposed to the other items whose taste or appearance is the basis of their symbolism.  On the other hand, though, later on one the informants mentioned how the charoset also represents the joys from life and hopes of the future, and this has more of a direct connection because delicious food can be a joy of life.  Children or non-Jewish participants in Seder are able to very quickly identify the symbolism of foods during Seder because some of the spoken rituals are about explaining them as well.

Not only is the symbolism of the food important at Seder, but the ritual interactions with these foods are significant as well.  The most prominent example of this would be having to eat the maror, or the bitter herbs.  As ‘L’ mentioned, those who really strive to experience the bitterness and pain of the Jewish ancestors would go for a large amount of it (though on the flip side, it may just be a competition).  If the foods hold the essence of some state of being, then eating the food could nurture that same essence within an individual by means of contagion.  I think this is part of the reason why such emphasis is placed on food symbolism during Seder.  Whether the resulting state of being is negative or positive, it provides a means to remember the events of the past.  By continuing to ritually reenact Seder dinner, during which the suffering of the Jewish ancestors is remembered and God is thanked for freeing the Jewish people of their slavery, the story of Passover for the Jewish people will continue to perpetuate and thus preserving this aspect of Jewish culture.

 

Annotation:

For additional examples of familial variations in celebrating the Passover Seder, please refer to  Sharon R. Sherman’s essay titled “The Passover Seder: Ritual Dynamics, Foodways, and Family Folklore” in Chapter 14 (pages 193 – 204) of Food in the USA: A Reader.

Sherman, Sharon R. “The Passover Seder: Ritual Dynamics, Foodways, and Family Folklore.” Food in the USA: A Reader, edited by Carole M. Counihan, Routledge, 2002, pp. 193-204.

 

Additional Informant Data:

The informant data for the leader of the Seder is included in the section above the item.  The same information is included for the other informant below:

‘S’ – Nationality: USA; Age: 26; Occupation: Ph.D. Student; Residence: Los Angeles, CA; Primary Language: English; Other Languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew

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