“Well, my grandmother always used to tell me that when you cooked, your emotions would like seep? I don’t know if that’s the right word. Seep into the food and affect the taste. Um, she would say you should never cook, especially for other people, when you are angry or sad or the food will come out wrong or, like, taste bitter. And this goes double for baking, um because baked goods should be made with love so that they’re sweeter. Basically, like, basically you should always cook in a happy environment where you’re relaxed, with music, your favorite show, or, like my grandmother’s favorite, a glass of red wine.”
Asked for more information online at a later time, and this was her response
“My grandmother is the cook in our family and we’ve done a lot of baking and cooking together, both for family holidays and for daily meals while she taught me how to cook. Cooking and baking with my grandmother was a great way for us to bond and we made many great memories. She taught me everything I know about cooking. This was a good reminder of not only taking care of myself and my emotional/mental health but also of caring for my loved ones. Food is sustenance in the same way love is; family and friends need both food and love to thrive. It’s a pretty traditional idea as well, grounded in the idea that women are the main caregivers and the source of a family’s happiness and well-being. I’m not sure where my grandmother heard it from, but I take it very seriously and it helps me feel connected to both my ancestors and the loved ones I’m cooking for. “
I knew the informant had liked to cook and bake, so I asked if she had any good advice she had learned from her grandmother, who, based on previous collections I had taken from her, I knew was quite the character. She told me this story, and also said that it would “definitely be something she would teach kids whenever they’re learning how to cook”.
Cooking and its various associated folklores are important identifiers for many ethnic groups and families. Recipes, traditions, and the act of cooking itself are taught traditionally between family members and those belonging to the same cultural group. Particularly interesting in this piece is the dynamic between the food and the cook; tangibly, the ingredients in a recipe are what makes the food taste the way it is. The preparation has an effect, too, but if you prepare food the same way, with the same ingredients, you should get the same result. That the participants grandmother suggested that the cook’s emotions and feelings can be used as an ingredient is a way to personify the food to be an extension of the self.
In the same way that one would not want to make a family member sad, angry, or distressed, the cook would not want to give food that would have that emotion cooked into it. This was perhaps introduced so that the cook – often put in stressful situations – can remember to keep calm. Especially as a child learning recipes and how to cook, it’s important that they not become frustrating and instead are taught that cooking can be the cultural instrument it is often used as.
There’s a national tradition that the first of May is the opening of duck shooting season. And, all over the country people go duck shooting. If you live in town, everyone knows someone in the country (if they’re into duck shooting, not everyone’s into duck shooting, but there’s a lotta people that are), what they’ll do is they’ll call up a local farmer and arrange to go duck shooting on their pond. A lotta farms have got more than one pond, and leading up to duck shooting season the farmers will start putting grain out at the ponds, to fatten the ducks, these are wild ducks, and as far as I know there’s not many domesticated ducks in New Zealand, a lotta them are wild. And so what happens is the farmers are trying to attract the ducks to their pond, so they don’t go to the neighbor’s pond, it’s actually a bit of a competition to be honest! So we lived on this 4,000 acre farm growing up, and we had a lot of duck ponds, and really these ponds are made to water the stock, so some of them are natural and others are made by my dad with the bulldozer. But then you always end up with ducks, in theses ponds. So the first of May is the beginning of duck shooting season, and it usually goes for two or three weeks, and it’s a national event. So every morning, on the first of May there’s this tradition where they guys (mainly guys, some girls) they go out with their shotguns. And some farmers build what’s called Mai-mai’s on the damns, I guess it’s a Maury word, Mai-mai, and what it is it’s like this hut that is camoflauged that they can go inside on the edge of the duck pond. So the guys get out literally at 5 in the morning so that they can be out and situated as the sun rises. And then the tradition too, my dad’s really not a big drinker, but there’s a major tradition where the farmers will take a bottle of whiskey, or they’ll have already stocked the mai-mai with whiskey and beer, and some farmers have traditional drinks. Like it could be scotch, it could be scotch and water, like in the south island it’s scotch and water, like a lotta them will have stashes of scotch and water in their mai-mais. So dad would often go out on his own, and come back from his first morning of duck shooting with maybe, I dunno 20 ducks? And as we got older we’d get to go out with him. And he brings all the ducks back but then my brother and I would have to pluck them (cause no one wants to do that, so give it to the kids). So there’s this huge festivities around plucking the ducks, and sometimes you get geese as well. So my brother and I would be in charge of plucking the ducks, and my dad would gut them and clean them out, and then they’d go up to my mom, who was in charge of cooking them. And that’s where farmers’ wives would exchange different recipes for cooking wild duck. They’d cook in their own houses but they would share recipes. And each year it’d be like, okay this is what I’m gonna cook my duck in, and what about you, and they’d share ideas, and there’s always usually like, a little bit of Cointreau or gromaneyei or something like that goes into the gravy, just to add flavor. And the really nice thing about new Zealand wild duck is that its got no fat on it, its very gamey. They’ve got a very dark colored meat, and they’re so tastey and so tender. So the roasting pan would have up to three ducks in it, all lined up. You roast them in the oven, and some of the recipes I showed you’ve got varying things, like you’ve got duck with orange, duck with plum, and pineapple duck, and so you’d put like pineapple in the stuffing, so you’d have the whole theme going there. And usually the duck would be served with roast potatoes so once the duck’s cooked to a certain point you gotta put the potatoes around the duck as well. And the roast potatoes are sort of cut up, and then rolled in flour, and salt and pepper, and then dropped into the roasting pan, so they’re cooking and the juices of the duck get soaked up, it’s like a slow roast in the oven. And then it comes out and you make the gravy by hand, and so you’ve got like the roasting pan, you tip the fat out (there’s not a lot of fat though) and then you just sprinkle flour in there, and then some like, water from the vegetables that might be cooking, and then you use a fork and just stir it all up and add a little thickening. And it’s this really gorgeous gravy that you can have with the roast duck and then you usually have like peas or broccoli or something like that with it on the plate, it’s just so good.
So that all happens in one day, the first day of shooting?
Yeah, exactly, so we have roast duck that night. Oh, and the thing you’ve got to watch too, because they’re wild ducks, is because they’ve been shot with a shotgun they have little pellets in them. So my mom, especially when we were little kids, the moms are in charge of making sure that the kids don’t get the duck with the pellets, you’re told to chew carefully cause you occasionally crunch down on a pellet. You can usually tell where the pellets have gone in, and the ducks that my mom likes to cook first are the ones where they’ve been shot in the head, sounds a bit gory I know. The less pellets the better for kids, cause you don’t wanna be swallowing lead pellets.
So and usually what happens is when we serve the duck, my dad would carve the duck on the kitchen counter. Before dinner. That was our tradition.
And then my dad would then periodically go out during duck shooting and get more, and would usually freeze the extra ones so that you could have them for a couple months.
So is this tradition really specific to New Zealand?
Very, I think. Yeah, every country’s got their own rules, and what a lot of it’s about too is they’re wild ducks so they’re not protected, and if it was year round the population of ducks would go down, so the idea of only doing it for the month of May is that (I don’t actually know how long duck shooting season goes, I oughta google it, but it’s something like 3 or 4 weeks), and it’s just cause you don’t wanna overshoot the duck population. It gives them a chance to repopulate. And actually, the seasons are the opposite in new Zealand, so May is like, right into fall. So maybe there’s an assumption too, that springs been 6 months old, so any spring ducks would now be 6 months and be good eating, because they’re tender and young.
So it’s definitely a tradition, and when you go duck shooting you’ve gotta wear like greens and browns so that youre blending in with the countryside as much as possible. And my dad was always super careful with guns, like, and it’s interesting in New Zealand you only have guns for shooting animals, people don’t carry them recreationally as much, and they certainly don’t carry them for protection. And farmers have to license their guns and lock them away.
And the other tradition we had, we had geese at the back of the farm, and my brother and I used to go and, we never carried guns, what we would do is if you let the geese see you coming they’ll start walking up the hill to the trees, and geese need to run to fly. So if you walk them up under the trees, you can charge them, and we’d have a competition to see how many we could catch, and we had these flexible belts that were elastic that my mom hand made, and we’d take them off and we’d get like three geese, and we’d tie their heads together with these belts, so that we could go and get three more. And then we would take them home and chop their heads off and eat them. So we did our own geese catching! And we used it as proof that we could do it without a gun.
This is a ritualized custom that is performed annually both because it follows the earth cycle calendar, and because of the practical reason of letting the duck population repopulate. It is clearly both a family custom, and a societal practice, as each segment of the society has a different role – the men go out and do the shooting, the children have to do the messy but easy labor, and the women do the cooking. There is also an ongoing generational aspect, as recipes are exchanged from family to family and passed down through generations. The fact that the children came up with their own hunting method, and created their own tradition, speaks of the involvement and desire for involvement in the grown up roles in this custom, and a sort of proving their capabilities, as they came up with their own way of duck hunting.
Me and my grandma, my Gigi, we would always make cookies together, these like these French cookies, they’re called like, Bisi or something, it’s “kisses,” like bissou, I think the plural is Bisi (Bises?), I can’t remember but you can just look it up. But we would always make them and she invented these cookies which she called them French kisses, and they’re basically like buttery as fuck, even though cause like French people love butter, like even though a lot of the stuff like in their pastries they love butter, in their croissants and stuff. And then we have this meal that we have every Christmas, I’m not good at this cause I don’t speak French, it’s called…oh it’s just Chicken Kiev, but you just change the chicken, whatever chicken is in French. But it’s so good, it has like cheese inside, you stuff the chicken, and there’s asparagus and different vegetables, and then you kinda pair it with like Ratatoui or stuff like that, so it’s kind of weird, but it’s good. And my great grandma has the recipe, she just died. It’s a really old family recipe. We have it every Christmas. Basically a lot of like, for us, how we’ve taken on our French culture is through food, so we have a lot of French food, and all those have come through my great grandma, it just keeps getting passed down. My great grandma lived in France, she was the first one from our family to come to America.
If you see my mom, she has black hair, like all my family has really dark brown hair and really tan skin, so they all call me white bread. Cause for some reason I came out like this, really blonde, blue eyed, like a little German kid. They all have green eyes.
This is an example of a family tradition that has been kept alive and continued in an effort to preserve their original (French) heritage and nationality, even generations after having moved to America. It is apparent that even so, much of that tradition is being lost, as the informant doesn’t speak French or know what the cookies are called, or much about the French culture surrounding the food that her family makes. It seems that she has a very American view of French culture, but yet has a desire to hold onto and continue her family’s French traditions as best she can. Her family’s ethnic traditions are important to her, and this is one way for her to access this, through food. This ritual of making cookies and other dishes with her grandmother is her way of expressing or trying to get close to her French heritage, and it has become much more of a family ritual and tradition than a national one.
LK explained that his grandmother and great grandmother would make tamales routinely at his great grandmother’s house. His grandmother, great grandmother, aunts and mom would sit around the table and make tamales while telling stories.
While this tamale-making is a tradition in and of itself, LK shared a superstition present during the cooking. LK explained that men were not allowed in the kitchen. If there were men helping out in the kitchen or even simply standing in the kitchen, the women believed the tamales would burn and therefore be ruined.
LK’s family are Mexican Americans who were for the most part born in America. LK’s grandmother and great grandmother were very superstitious women. Therefore, it is not out of the ordinary for them to have superstitions regarding time spent in the kitchen.
Perhaps this superstition developed because the men would distract the women if they were in the kitchen and the tamales would actually burn–a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. Or perhaps this superstition developed because the kitchen was a woman’s territory in Mexican American culture. Their belief may have been a mechanism to keep the men off the women’s turf.
Context: The informant was born in Pakistan (her parents are from Afghanistan originally), and the only variety of cucumber (almost a luxury item) available at the time was a large, hard, bitter kind that had to be prepared a certain way in order to be palatable. In her family, each end of the cucumber (about a half-inch on each side) had to be sliced off, then the two inner surfaces had to be rubbed very hard and fast against each other to “draw out the bitterness”. Sometimes a cut is made into the “body” end of the cucumber before rubbing the end slice against it. A thin film of pale green foamy substance would appear at the edge of the cucumber end, which was then wiped or washed off, and the cucumber was ready to prepare and eat.
Analysis: From a couple different anecdotal and semi-scientific accounts, it appears that this practice is not unique to Pakistan or even the Asian subcontinent, but is practiced by people of Czech and German descent, in the US, in Canada, and in Britain (and probably in many more regions, as it likely that only in the past couple of centuries have we been able to produce consistently non-bitter cukes through genetic modification). The practice is often called “rubbing” or “wicking“, and though it doesn’t seem to have a strong scientific basis (bitterness level is often a result of many growing factors such as temperature, moisture content, etc.), those who use the method (the informant included) have always found it to work. The belief seems to be that the foamy substance that is created from friction between the two ends is what contains the bitterness (in scientific terms, in contains the cucurbitacin compounds which are toxic to some animals and very bitter to humans). So although serious scientific research hasn’t been done on the subject, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this particular folk food practice has any less validity in the kitchen.
Rajasthani Wedding Games and Pranks
1. After the wedding ceremony, the bride goes to her husband’s house where his family will put her intelligence, courage, strength and cooking experience to the test (in a friendly series of games). The exact tests to be performed vary by family, but some that Mayuri listed were:
– The bride enters the house only after kicking a rice-filled pot with her right foot (auspicious one).
– The ring game: a vat is filled with milk and small metallic objects (along with the wedding rings) are thrown in. The bride and groom must reach in together and try and fish out their rings with one hand. The one who does so first will have the upper hand in the marriage!
– The bride must try and hold as many of the gifts that her new family will deposit in her lap. Brides will often use their veils to wrap all her new family’s gifts and carry them around. She must carry as much as she can in her sari (test of her ingenuity and resourcefulness).
– The bride must also pick up every female member of her husband’s family. This is a test of her strength.
Later on, right before the wedding night, the bride and groom will be teased together (especially by the cousins) and pushed and shoved all the way to their highly decorated bedroom.
These rituals are done to ease the liminal period for the bride. Traditionally in India, the bride does not meet her husband or his family before the marriage and so these games are done to ease the transition from her old family home she’s lived in her whole life, to her new home with her husband and his family. In India, families live together and share the same house; therefore, the rituals and games involve the whole family. The bride is also going from an unmarried virgin to a married woman on the wedding night so it is important for the bride to feel comfortable with her husband.
Informant Background: The informant was born in rural parts of China called Hainan. She lived there with her grandparents where she attended elementary school. She moved to the United States when she was thirteen. She speaks both Chinese and English. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother but travels back to visit her relatives in Beijing and Hainan every year. She and her mother still practice a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrate Chinese holidays through special meals
in the days my grandparents told me that to get a governmental position you need to pass certain exams. The exams happened in one day and it is really hard. You can’t get a job unless you pass this test. So to get good luck for that exam day the night before your mother would have to catch a spider in your house, put the spider in the egg, and cook it. You can put the spider in by cracking open the top a little bit and then put the spider in. Then you can still boil the egg. Then you have to eat it before you take the test. This will help you pass the test.
This is a folk-belief about how to create good luck. The story was told to the informant by her grandparents who live in an area called Hainan. According to her this was what her great-grandmother did for her grandfather before he went to take his test.
I think this folk-belief is very strange. The informant herself also stated how she finds this method very strange as well. Regardless of peculiarity, this shows the family’s involvement in one individual event; that different members of the family are linked together through different objects and methods. In this case it is the mother who has to cook the egg because it is common in a Chinese household that the mother is the cook in the family. This reflects how the mother has to support her child and bring him luck even though the method seems strange. The spider also has to be found in the house. This also shows a different living arrangement situation depending on culture. In Western Culture after the child reaches a certain age he/she would leave the family house and live separately. In this case it is evident that Chinese family tends to maintain as one household.
This belief is a method of how to deal with one of life transitional period. People associate themselves through different identity, one of them is occupation. In this case, the exam is important as an official way to achieve that particular job identity and how the family helps the individual.
It also shows how the egg is eaten to enhance the individual’s belief in his own luck. This shows it is important to believe in good luck is whether or not the spider-egg has magical power or not. Similar to the placebo effect, believing is a big part into feeling lucky.
Baba Ghanouj is an Arabic dish that means “my daddy is spoiled.” It’s also known as Mutabbal in different regions, which means “it’s mixed up.” She said that it’s common for kids to make food for their parents after a certain age in her culture, and baba ghanouj was such a delicious and straightforward meal, kids would make it and say something like, “look, see how spoiled my dad is?” My informant ate it a lot growing up; she learned all of her recipes from her mom, because recipes were passed down in her family and her mother also inherited recipes from her stepdad’s mother, because he is Palestinian-Jordanian, so compared so Saudi food, theirs is a little bit lighter and distinct in her mother’s recipe knowledge.
This recipe, as well as many others, is significant to my informant, because since her family was poor growing up, her mother cooked cheap recipes like lentils stews (which are also used as a folk remedy for colds) hummus (which literally means “chickpea” in Arabic), and baba ghanouj with pita for her and her siblings all the time.
She also listed the cooking directions for me:
Burn eggplant skins on stove until eggplant juice is bubbling out, this is when they’re fully cooked
Let them cool & remove skin
Toss eggplants in bowl
Mash with fork
Place mashed eggplant in strainer over other bowl to remove excess water (save and use in soup or other recipe)
Return pulp to mixing bowl
Add smashed garlic (smash in wooden mortar)
Add salt and lemon juice
Add tahini 1 tablespoon at a time
Add Salt, Sumac & Olive Oil to taste
Top with sprinkled sumac, chopped parsley, tomatoes and olive oil
*Do your best to get all of the skin off. Don’t use any hard parts of the eggplant (usually the little bump at the bottom)
How you are supposed to cook a ham.
When a customer was coming over, Cindy bought a ham, cut it in half then put it in the oven. She likes to cook for a hobby so I’m sure she believes this gives it a better flavor or something. One day I asked her why she did that before she cooked it and she said “well, you do, why do you do it?” I told her it was how my mom did it, and even my grandmother. After I had asked her I remembered that I had asked my mother the same thing, she told me it was because when she was little, her mother had to cut the ham in half to cook it because it wouldn’t fit in the small oven any other way.
I had never heard this before until one day in folklore class, many people mentioned knowing that people in their family did this too. When I spoke to my grandmother and she was regailing me with stories, she mentioned this. I laughed because I now recognized it, but I also thought I should add this to my folklore collection because everybody else talking about it used a roast and my grandma specifically said they did this when they cooked hams; a little variation.
The informant was born in Pennsylvania but her parents immigrated to America from Italy. Despite living in America, my informant has very close ties to her Italian roots, and still cooks many traditional Italian dishes.
The informant has been making traditional Italian waffle cookies, or Pizzelles, for as long as I can remember. I asked her to teach me how to make them this month which removes them somewhat from their normal context. Usually, pizzelles are a holiday treat and my informant makes them only for Christmas. She learned to make these waffle cookies from her mother and they used a special waffle iron that her mother brought over from Italy. What’s really special about this tradition now is that my informant still uses that same waffle iron from Italy to bake these holiday treats. No one else in the family makes pizzelles, but my informant revealed that next Christmas, her daughter will have to take over because it’s getting too hard for her to make them (she’s 91 after all). This means that her daughter will become the active bearer of this tradition and the waffle iron from Italy will be passed into her possession. Eventually, it will make its way down through the family. Below, I have transcribed the interview with my informant that took place while we were cooking.
Me: So your mom taught you to make these?
Informant: Yes. We used to make them together was I was little. But when I got married and had kids, I took over the baking.
Me: And this is the same waffle iron she used to use? In Italy?
Informant: The very same.
Me: Why do you still make them? What’s so important about them?
Informant: It’s a Christmas tradition. It wouldn’t be Christmas without waffle cookies!
Me: But don’t you get tired?
Informant: Yes, it’s hard work making 96 dozen cookies one at a time. Eventually Terry (her daughter) will have to take over. Probably next year. She can have this waffle iron too.
Me: So is it just habit to make these Christmas cookies, or does it mean something more to you?
Informant: Well, the habit is the significant part. It’s a tradition that’s always been a part of my life. It’s always been a part of the rest of the family’s too. Isn’t that enough of a reason to keep making them?
Me: Yeah, but does it like help you feel more Italian or something?
Informant: You could say that. We’re keeping an Italian tradition alive by making cookies every year. It makes me remember my parents, my childhood, even my own kids’ childhood—how I would help my mother, and then later, when Terry would help me.
Me: So that’s why you go through all this trouble every year, making tons of these waffle cookies?
Informant: It’s not trouble…I like making the cookies, I’m just getting older is all. It makes me feel connected to the past, to my parents that died a long, long time ago. And because I know that Terry will keep making these cookies, I feel connected to a future I probably won’t get to experience.
I always understood this baking tradition as a way of connecting to the family’s Italian roots. My informant sees it that way too, but she also thinks of it in a way I never would have considered. She knows that the tradition will last into the future, carried on by her daughter, then probably her daughter’s daughter, and so on, which connects my informant not only to the past, but the present and future as well. Perhaps this is why the women in the family make these cookies: to connect to past, cultural roots but also to those of the future.
½ cup shortening
2/3 cup sugar
13/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
Pinch of salt
Mix shortening, sugar, and eggs. Beat until blended and smooth. Add flour, baking powder, and vanilla a little at a time mixing well. The texture should be soft but should not run. The more flour, the thicker the pizzelle will be. Other flavors may be substituted for the vanilla such as: anise seed or oil, lemon juice or grated rind, cocoa, orange juice, chopped nuts (very fine).
A very similar recipe can be found in 1000 Italian Recipes by Michele Scicolone. Unlike my informant’s recipe, this one does not use shortening and adds butter to the cookie mix.
Scicolone, Michele. 1000 Italian Recipes. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.