“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.
“This story is called Soup on a Nail. It’s an old Norwegian folk story. OK, so the story goes that there’s this village and there’s this woman in the village that’s known as being very miserly. She doesn’t give at all to the poor, she’s very very selfish, um, and things like that.
So one night a man comes and knocks on her door and he’s a beggar. He’s really really poor. And he says “Um, excuse me, is there any way you can spare me maybe just a pot of soup or something. I’m so so hungry,” and she says, “Absolutely not, I hate beggars. Just please go away.” And he says, “Oh, well, could I possibly just have some water. Maybe you don’t even have any water but that’s OK.” She says, “Oh, of course I have water” and he says “Ok let me come in and just boil the water,” and she says “Ok fine”.
So she lets him come in and he boils the water and he says “Now this soup tastes pretty incredible if you just have some bone marrow but you probably don’t have any bone marrow or anything like that.” And she says, “Of course I do, what are you talking about?” and gives him the bone marrow.
So he takes the bone marrow and he mixes it in —
OH and I forgot to mention earlier the point of this story is that he says “I can make soup on a nail; all you need for this soup is one nail,” and she says “Ok, I have a nail, take it.” Not like a fingernail, like a nail for the wall. So he puts the nail at the bottom of a pan then boils the water and then adds the bone marrow.
Then he’s like “You know what works really well with this whole mixture? If you just have some vegetables. I know you might not have some vegetables and they’re hard to come by, not many people have them.” She says, “Well of course *I* have vegetables.” So she gives him the vegetables and he mixes this in.
And this goes on and on, like he adds meat, all these different things and flavors to this soup, and makes this really delicious soup, and in the end he says “There! I’ve made soup on a nail!” And he takes it away, and she’s given him a meal without realizing it. It’s about, like, it’s not that hard to give to people, and it’s bad to miserly and selfish and not give to the poor.
“It was taught to me by my grandmother, and i haven’t heard it since I was maybe five.” The informant said she doesn’t know why she remembers the tale so well, but it always stuck with her. Her grandmother told a lot of tales to them when they were kids, and always tried to impart wisdom through fun stories. She likes the story because charity is something she’s believed in her entire life.
Informant: “This story would probably be told to a small child. Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of a simple story and isn’t too long or anything, and um, like teaches good lessons, so yeah. I know my grandma is the one that taught me it, but I wouldn’t tell the story to my friend or something, yeah.”
Tales are often told to children to teach them lessons, and there’s no lesson more important than the golden rule: treat people the way you would like to be treated. The informant comes from a family that is generally wealthy, but she says that her grandmother did not grow up with as much. In telling this story, her grandmother is teaching her that not only is it important to help those less fortunate than you, but also that it is not that difficult.
In the story itself, the rich woman is described as selfish and rude. She also can’t see what the beggar is doing despite the listener being able to pick up on it fairly quickly. It was interesting hearing the voices that the informant gave the characters in the story, which can not be translated over text. The tone of the woman was snobby and rude, while the beggar was cunning and shifty. Without this intonation, one might read this story as the woman acting like a complete and total fool for no reason, but with the tone that the informant used, it’s revealed that it is the need to display her wealth and capabilities that makes the woman susceptible to the trap.
Hearing tales like this are always interesting to me, because I was never told many tales as a kid. However, my mom would use folklore to instill the values of being kind to others, and helping those less fortunate than I am, but it was typically done through proverbs.
I researched this story a little bit further, and found out that I actually had known this tale all along, despite thinking it was brand new. The variation that I am used to is called ‘Stone Soup’, and I believe I learned it in school growing up. Other than its title, the story is almost exactly the same. It’s interesting that even a change as simple as one word can lead to such different recollections of stories and tales.
For one of the most popular variants, which includes a group of tricksters gathering ingredients for a soup that does not even exist, you can check out the book Stone Soup by Marcia Brown.
Brown, Marcia. Stone Soup: An Old Tale. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947. Print.
EM is a 45 year old Salvadoran man who moved from El Salvador to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, a city with a strong Salvadoran presence. EM shared with me the significance of a traditional food from El Salvador, the pupusa:
“Ok, so, this is what people consider the national dish in El Salvador. It’s called pupusas. It’s a corn tortilla stuffed with different things. It could be pork, it could be cheese, it could be beans…now, people even have hot dogs as part of it! That’s something I haven’t experienced since I don’t live there anymore, but it’s happening- people are trying out new things. American pupusas even have stuff like spinach or mushrooms added to them to appeal to people who may not have tried them before.
It is pretty much everywhere. I would say that it is a very humble, simple dish. Anyone can make it and eat it. There is no right or wrong time to eat it, so you can eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, ot anywhere in between. In school, when I was growing up, we would have it at recess, for example. It’s also shared in the sense that you get many of them at a time and eat it all together with a group/
Something we eat alongside it is “curtido”, which is almost like a type of sauerkraut. Usually, the places where they have pupusas will have a place where you can get extra curtido, carrots, onions, all sorts of things that have been pickled in vinegar. It’s not necessarily pickled in the way things are pickled here, it’s not very sour, but it has gone through a pickling process. The repollo- cabbage- doesn’t take so long to ferment.
It’s everywhere, so you can find it in school. Around your neighborhood, there may be three or so places where you can go and buy them. They’re not that expensive. At least, when I was growing up, each pupusa was just a couple of cents. Now, it’s about 60 cents, compared to here where they’re three dollars per pupusa! But you could find them anywhere. There are restaurants in El Salvador where that is all they do. There are regions in El Salvador where you can find specific pupusas, like ones that use rice instead of corn for the dough- the masa. There are different types of stuffings such as squash, close to the coast you can find seafood, like shrimp. People sell them at street corners, local markets- it doesn’t have to be a specific place. Like here in L.A., you’ll even find them in places like the Piñata District. So things vary, and there are specific places in El Salvador that are known for the pupusas. The buses will even stop in the outskirts of those towns and someone will come with pupusas to sell on the bus. This was back when bus trips were six or so hours and people needed a meal- it was always pupusas. They’re less commonly done at home since you can buy them everywhere.”
Pupusa Stand at the USC Farmer’s Market
Close-up of pupusas with a popular side of plantains
My thoughts: Thinking about Appadurai and the idea of high cuisine, it’s clear that El Salvador doesn’t distinguish between high cuisine and low cuisine- the food that is the national dish is described as “humble” and “peasant food”. This ties into other Salvadoran folklore that reflects national pride because they often focus on the working class. Also, in relation to globalization, we can see how pupusas have now become popular in other areas of the world, such as Los Angeles, were they may be altered to fit the tastes of Americans. Here at USC, the pupusa stand at the Farmer’s Market have spinach and mushroom pupusas that are reminiscent of pizza, but don’t actually resemble any Salvadoran recipes.
JT is a 40 year old Vietnamese woman who lives in Arcadia, California. She grew up in her home country and immigrated to the US as a teenager. Here is a Vietnamese tradition she remembers from her childhood:
“The Vietnamese have certain holidays that are, in some ways, like the Jewish tradition of Passover, were we don’t eat certain foods and eat others that are special to that holiday. One of the most important celebrations is the Full Moon. I was very young, but I remember that during the full moon, we would go to the Buddhist temple, where there would be tables and tables of vegetarian food- we didn’t eat meat during this time.
Who was usually cooking that food?
They didn’t always cook it there. You could have vegetarian foods from restaurants- during that time, every restaraunt will have the vegetarian dishes. It’s becoming more common now for restaurants in Vietnam to have vegetarian dishes all the time, too.
Do you know why you celebrated the full moon?
I remember that it wasn’t every full moon- some full moons were more special than the others. We used a lunar calendar, not like the American Calendar- it’s the Chinese version. The full moon of the “month of 7″, for example, was very significant. But the biggest one was the full moon of January- this is called Tet Nguyen Tieu- was the most important because it was the first full moon of the New Year. Everyone would go to temple then and pray for good luck in the New Year.
Is this something you still celebrate?
I usually do, but it’s inconvenient- we do it in our own way, buying more fruits and vegetables instead of eating meats around the full moon. We do it at home. Most Buddhist families we know do this too.
My thoughts: This piece is interesting because it shows how a Chinese tradition like the lunar calendar has spread to other parts of Asia as well were the festival changes to reflect that particular culture. This piece also shows that many different cultures have similar beliefs when it comes to the concept of the New Year, such as wishing for good luck in the year to come. This may imply that Vietnam is a future-oriented culture- the informant also told me that Vietnam has been ranked the most optimistic country in the world!
The informant noted that each Buddhist family havstheir “own way” of celebrating the full moon. If it’s inconvenient to go to an official celebration at a temple or to go to a Vietnamese restaurant, the family will alter their eating patterns at home. This shows how each family incorporates their own family folk customs with official religion as well.
The Main Piece
“During certain times of the year we would leave out food for our ancestors, the date would very because it would depend on the date they died. So my grandma died on the 18th of September so we would leave food out for her then every year. It wouldn’t be for every relative we had ‘cus that would be excessive, but the ones we were especially close to we would be sure to leave food out for them. They would usually leave out duck, chicken and fruit on a nice porcelain plate, or whatever nice plate they could find around the house (just not any paper plates). For every ancestor it would always be the same food. After a night they would take the chicken and duck back into the house, pray for said ancestor, and eat it. However, they would leave the fruit out, unsure of why they would not eat the fruit exactly, but never questioned it since she was only a child.
My informant is Rachel Tan, a current first year undergraduate student and personal friend of mine at USC. Rachel did not understand the practice at first, she was too young to understand. She would spend a lot of time at her grandparents’ house since her family traveled a lot. The practice was more from her Cambodian side, her grandmother being full Cambodian. Rachel would help her grandmother with this practice during her elementary school days before she was old enough to stay home alone. She thinks of it fondly as a time where she was able to “take care of her ancestors” and hoped that her descendants would eventually take care of her as well.
We discussed this in Ronald Tutor Campus Center over lunch as we were talking about our families and life back home.
My grandmother is Cantonese, but is also very connected to her culture, feeling it is extremely important just as Rachel’s grandmother does. Therefore, it was easy for me to relate to growing up with grandparents extremely cultured, but not understanding all of their practices. I honestly thought it was a bit odd that they ate the food that they left overnight, but I suppose every culture has its oddities. Hearing about how this practice gave her more of a connection with her ancestors and hopes to have this practice create some type of relationship with her descendants that she may never meet in the future was very touching and heartwarming.
“So what do you eat normally in New Zealand?”
“We eat a lot of lamb. There are 13 sheep for every person in New Zealand. I guess… mince (minced meat) and cheese pies. We eat that a lot. It’s like a normal lunch or dinner food. But it’s like too normal to be our cultural food…”
“So what’s your cultural food?”
“Well there’s a lot of dessert. Do you know Pavlova? It’s like a meringue cake. Oh and there’s Hangi. It’s like the traditional form of cooking in New Zealand. Meat gets buried underground for like 8 hours. It’s this real smokey flavor. ”
Informant & Context:
My informant for this piece is a USC student from New Zealand who lived in Auckland for 18 years. She is speaking about cultural food in both senses: the first being food she commonly eats, and the second being historical or traditional food.
Regarding Hangi: it is a traditional Maori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. It is still used in special occasions. (Wikipedia)
These items of food don’t seem especially odd by western standards. Presumably this is because they take a lot of influence from English culture and English food—where a lot of American culture is rooted as well. It was slightly odd to me that my informant cited a Maori tradition as the cultural food of New Zealand—considering that in the USA, we don’t define traditional American culture as Native American culture.
“So we have this little tradition in Norway where we eat lye fish. Do you know lye? Do you know what lye is? So lye is a liquid obtained by leeching ashes or strong alkali. So you literally put a fish in ash and you let it rot. Then you leave it in the ash or lye until it becomes so fermented that all that’s left is the part of the fish that doesn’t serve any function, the jello that’s only there to make sure that the rest of the body stays where it should be. And that’s what you eat. Once a year. For Christmas, primarily. And you eat it with so many things on the side that you disguise the taste of the fish. So like, the whole point is you use as many small dishes as you can. You can’t just eat the fish because the fish tastes horrible. And we all agree that it tastes terrible, but we all keep eating it because it’s tradition. It comes from Lofoten. It comes from way up north. It comes from a way of preservation. So it was back in the day when we didn’t have refrigerators or anything like that. They could put the fish on lye. And then that would… You know, it rots, but you can still eat it. It’s like, yeah, it works. It’s called lutefisk.”
Lutefisk sounds like an absolutely awful dish. It seems the source felt that way about it anyway. He recalls eating it every Christmas ever since he was little. No one enjoys it, his family merely does it out of tradition. The tradition, like he said, stems from old times when fish couldn’t be preserved in refrigerators and whatnot. So instead, people would preserve fish by keeping it in ash.
It sounds like this dish wasn’t invented intentionally. Ash was probably used to preserve other things, and they had no idea the effect it would have on fish. They probably preserved the fish in ash or lye for a couple of days, came back, and seen a whole different product than they were expecting. I’m surprised it’s still around though, considering the method of making it and what it actually is. Must be a very strong tradition for people to still be eating it today.
People probably hated it back then, too, but like the source said, with enough side dishes, the fish could be forgotten. It probably allowed ancient Norwegian peoples to still take in some kind of protein during the heavy winter months, along with whatever nutrients they got from the harvest.
For more on this recipe:
Legwold, Gary. The Last Word on Lutefisk: True Tales of Cod and Tradition. Minneapolis: Conrad Henry, 1996. Print.
Tradition: An adult male, half Chinese half Texan, brings mac and cheese to his family Thanksgiving dinner every year. The family is a mix of ethnicities: Japanese, Chinese, and Caucasian.
The informant is a half Japanese half Chinese female, age 20.
Informant: For Thanksgiving, we have one cousin (Eric) whose sole responsibility is to bring the mac and cheese. And every year, our aunt asks everyone what they want to bring, and on the list, she’ll write “Eric-Mac and Cheese.” Apparently it’s the best mac and cheese.
Collector: Do you like it? Does your family like it?
Informant: It’s pretty good, I’ve eaten it. I assume that my family likes it. Because he’s demanded to bring it every year. I’m just waiting to see what happens when he doesn’t bring it.
Collector: Where did he learn to make it from?
Informant: I asked him about it, and he said he pulled the recipe off the internet. And he proceeded to forward it to me, so I can make it for myself.
Collector: What do you think it means to you or to your family?
Informant: I think it’s funny that my aunt assumes that that’s the only thing he can make and that we can eat. This has been going on for five years now. So whenever it’s Thanksgiving, I know that there’s something that I can eat–there’s gonna be mac and cheese!
Even though the family has a mix of different ethnic backgrounds, it’s interesting to see that every year, they demand and designated for one family member to bring the mac and cheese to Thanksgiving dinner. I think that this family tradition is reflective of the “melting pot” culture of America, where families come together and share their food cultures with one another.
“Okay, so basically, ummm, una bola de verde is a platano ball, but you will put meat or vegetables or chicken or whatever you want inside of it. Ummm you can put, you can make it in like bola form which is, like, you put it in soup, ummmm, or you can, like, fry it, and it’s an empanada de verde. So good. So good.”
This traditional Ecuadorian meal is quite mouthwatering. It translates directly into “Ball of Green” or “Empanada of Green” depending on which form you use. For the bola or ball form, you take a green plantain or platano, as it’s called in Spanish, chop it up, and flatten the pieces. Once they’ve been flattened, you take ground meat or vegetables, put it on top of the flattened plantains, and wrap the plantains around the filling, rolling it into a ball. Then, you deep fry the filled plantain balls until crispy. The other method is to flatten the whole plantain, put the filling on top, and then fold the plantain over itself, creating a whole moon shape. Then, you put this in the oven and bake it, turning it into an empanada.
Plantains are an Ecuadorian staple. Because they grow so easily in Ecuador’s climate, the country has an abundance of them, and they make hundreds of recipes using plantains. However, most people use them when their still green. The greener the plantain, the less sweet. Sometimes, if people want the dish to be sweeter, they’ll wait for the plantain to ripen longer, and they’ll use it once it’s yellow or blackening.
Informant was a 19 year old female who was born in Mexico and currently lives in Brazil. She came to visit me.
Informant: Even though we live in Brazil, we always eat Mexican food, my mom always found a way to make it. She made sure that we didn’t lose our Mexican identity through food. It was kinda embarrassing to invite your friends when we had stew.
Collector: Why was it embarrassing?
Informant: Because to people that don’t know it and haven’t tried it before, it doesn’t really smell appealing. Like I once made a friend of mine eat it, and I was so scared that she wouldn’t like it, but she did, thank God.
Collector: What is in this stew?
Informant: Well, there’s different soups, but the one my mom makes the most is this one with pork belly. It has corn, onions, a special pepper, garlic, and green sauce. The ingredients are what make it smell gross, but I’m used to it like I grew up with it. It’s something we also typically eat at Christmas, it’s a Mexican thing.
Collector: Is there any special reason why you eat this at Christmas?
Informant: I mean, it doesn’t mean anything s pecial like it doesn’t represent anything. It’s just because it’s warm and it’s cold outside. It’s funny, if I don’t have anything spicy in a period of a week, I start to lose it. I get mood swings, or I start feeling desperate for it, spicy food can actually be an addiction. I used to bring chili powder to school. (She laughs) I actually have a purse size of the chili powder, so I put it in my purse when I go out.
Collector: Why do you like this particular piece of folklore?
Informant: I like it because my family makes it and I’ve been eating it since I was little so I’m used to it. My first memory of it was when my grandmother made it in Mexico on Christmas. It’s always reminded me of home. It’s like a part of my identity.
I think that my friend’s story about her Mexican stew and how embarrassed she was to show it to others who weren’t Mexican was really interesting. It shows how she has such pride in her culture, that she doesn’t want anyone tearing it down because they don’t understand it. I personally always like to show people my Brazilian food, and I get upset when they don’t like it. I found it really interesting and enlightening how food can be a big part of our cultural identity.