Author Archives: Anna Shakeshaft

Occupational Folklore: “Merde”

Main Piece: “So I did ballet for many years and usually when someone has a performance, at least where I grew up, you would say ‘break a leg!’ to wish them luck. It’s a weird thing. I don’t know where it came from. But…um… in dance we were never allowed to say ‘break a leg’ because that was an actual concern when dancing. So instead we said ‘merde’ which literally means ‘shit’ in French. So…um…before every show we would always whisper ‘merde’ to each other to wish everyone luck”

Background: The informant did ballet for many years in her hometown, Chicago. Whether the expression is specific to Chicago or to the lore of ballet is unclear. The informant is fluent in French but most of her friends in ballet did not speak any French. However, the majority of ballet terminology (i.e. different positions and movements) is French.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table.

My Thoughts: I understand the expression as occupational folklore. Knowing and using ‘merde’ is a rite of passage within the context of ballet and performance. Perhaps “merde” is ballet’s adaptation of “break a leg” used in theatre. I also grew up taking lessons in ballet and performing, but have not heard this term, which leads me to believe it is a term specific to the informant’s studio. Because most of the language in ballet is French, it is fitting that the dancer’s lore would be French as well. Even though “merde” has little relevance to ballet, it is consistent with the linguistics of the ballet studio. According to the informant, “merde” was whispered before each performance, so not only is this folklore occupational, it is ritualistic as well.

Creole Foodways: Crab Boil

Main Piece: “A big tradition in my family is to have an annual crab boil. So this event is where we all get together and we just celebrate our Creole heritage. And we serve traditional foods like crawfish, shrimp, um crab, corn, and sausage. Um this is another event where my entire family- extended and even family friends- will come to. We have different things that we do that are typical of Creole people, like the second-hand line which is when people will get in a line and sort of dance and walk around like a konga line.”

Background: According to the informant, this event usually happens at the end of July when everyone is more available to come together. The informant notes that the food is “traditional” of Creole dishes- the seafood, vegetables, and meat. She mentions that Louisiana typically has crawfish boils, but her family’s tradition uses more than just crawfish. The second-hand line is a celebration that usually culminates the event. The informant describes it as a type of line dance without real structure. She says people throw and wave handkerchiefs during the second-hand line. Unlike other family-specific gatherings, friends of the family are also invited. She says this event is less exclusive, “like a barbecue.”

Performance Context: I sat across the informant at a table outside.

My Thoughts: The unifying component of the crab boil is the traditional Creole foodways. This gathering seems to be rather fluid, finding meaning in it’s gathering of family and friends unlike an exclusively celebrated holiday. The inclusivity of the event allows for adaptation and interpretation. For the informant, the event is a fun time to see family and friends, while eating, dancing, and socializing. The structure of the event itself is also quite fluid. It is centered around the crab boil and ends with the second-hand line, but seems to be mostly about bringing its guests together. The event’s food is “traditionally Creole,” meaning the dishes use different elements of Creole foodways, specifically the seafood (crawfish, shrimp, scallops). Although other cultures certianly utilize crawfish, shrimp, and scallops, Creole foodways have claimed them as important elements in their recipes.

Creole Foodways: Gumbo

Main Piece: “So culturally my family is Creole and… um… both sides of my family, my mom and dad, are all from Louisiana. So a big traditional food that we eat is gumbo, which is kind of like a soup… um… and it’s filled with seafood, sausage, and it’s served over rice. Um… my family eats it every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s the main meal at Thanksgiving versus traditional turkey and stuff. We have both.. but gumbo is like our big thing.”

Background: The informant says that this tradition has been around her entire life. The meals involves her entire family, immediate and extended. For the informant and her family, gumbo is a traditional Creole dish only eaten on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The meal is important to the informant because it involves her grandparents, who speak broken French and English, as well as her parents and brothers, who only speak English. She understands this meal as a unification of different parts of Creole heritage- being black, being white, and/or being French.

Performance Context: I sat across the informant at a table outside.

My Thoughts: It is interesting that the informant describes her family as “culturally Creole”. The informant’s identification with Creole heritage seems to be indicated by her parent’s Louisiana lineage. The informant and her family only eat gumbo on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The context, however, is not religious or patriotic, but rather a special occassion where the entire family eats together. The choice of making and eating this dish on Thanksgiving and Christmas is an interesting time to celebrate a traditional Creole dish. Both holidays seem to be a way to gather the entire family in one setting while incorporating individual tradition and ethnic foodways. The unification of different domains of being Creole (black, white, French) are understandably significant to the informant, whose family has different backgrounds contributing to their identity.

Passover Game Night

Main Piece: “I think there’s a couple of things my family does on Passover. One thing my dad does every year on one of the nights… because we do a whole seder the first and second night… we hold a game night. And that includes a different game every year. In the past, we’ve done Jeopardy night or… um… the amazing race Passover edition… we have even done American Idol Passover edition. And I think that gives a fun little way for the younger kids at seder to want to come…um…and something I’ve alwyas enjoyed.”

Background: The informant says Passover game nights have been a tradition her whole life. She says her father is quite creative and puts a lot of time into these games. The informant appreciates these games because she says it’s a good way to learn about the story of Passover without it being “too boring.” Trivia, clues, and rewards are used as incentive to make the seder interesting and enjoyable. A “seder” is a Jewish ritual of the telling and celebration of the liberation of the Isrealites from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Performance Context: I sat at my desk while the informant sat across from me in a chair.

My Thoughts: The informant’s father invests a lot of effort into this game night. His creativity unites cultures and traditions; U.S. games like Jeapoardy, American Idol, and the Amazing Race are combined with Jewish rituals, retelling stories of ancient Egypt and Israel on the holiday of Passover. The game night tradition involves the entire family, which according to the informant, brings together over 50 members of the family. Judaism, like other religions, values tradition. However, this Passover game night adapts tradition to a modern context. I expect the legacy of this game night will live on since the informant notes how enjoyable the seders become when the whole family is involved in the game.

Afghan Superstition: Feet

Main Piece: “So when you step on the back of someone’s foot accidentally, giving someone a ‘flat tire,’ it’s bad luck if you don’t immediately take your hand and squeeze the other person’s hand.”

Background: This has been a tradition in the informant’s family her whole life. The family is Afghan, but lives in the U.S., and values their culture very much. The informant’s mother told her that stepping on the back of someone’s foot is bad luck. Bad luck is significant for the informant’s family; she notes that Afghan people are extremely superstitious. Her family believes in “jinn,” that demons, ghosts, and evil spirits can inhabit one’s body and mind. The informant believes this superstition is connected to one’s past life, where people are shunned for their “bad luck.” According to the informant, bad luck can be a disease someone is born with, but is punished regarding decisions in the past life.

Performance Context: The informant and I had lunch together and sat at a table across from each other.

My Thoughts: Stepping on the back of someone’s foot seems to be an act of callousness, but squeezing the hand indicates care and respect. The generational superstition has continued through the informant’s mother to the informant; in fact, I have accidentally stepped on the back of the informant’s foot before and she asked me to squeeze her hand. Readings in ANTH 333 touch on the ways superstitions guide daily life and routine. The fear behind something that may compromise one’s luck is obviously a factor in being accepted by others as well as an indicator of future well-being.

Further References:

For another version of this superstition, see: http://weirdrussia.com/2014/08/31/russian-traditions-and-superstitions/ for the Russian version.