Author Archives: Maisie Klompus

How to find lost items

“It goes back a few generations, I know my grandmother does it still, because I walk into her apartment and I see the shot glasses still on the counter. The tradition is that if you’ve lost something and you can’t find it, and you’ve looked in all the unusual places, all the places you like don’t think of, and everything, that you finally get out a shot-glass, and you pour a shot of vodka, and you just leave it on the counter, just out. Let it evaporate and everything as it goes, and then what you’re looking for will turn up after you’ve done this at some point. I’ve definitely done it many, many times, I know that my mother does it, cuz I’ve walked into the house and seen shot glasses of vodka on the counter, and I know my grandmother does it too, so it’s kind of a funny thing, obviously, because we’re leaving out vodka in a way to find something. But I learned it from my mother, and I’m pretty sure she learned it from her mother, and I would assume the same happened with my grandmother. And the second half of the tradition is that once you find the thing, you have to, basically, as close to immediately, drink whatever’s left of the shot in the shot glass. If it’s been a long time and it’s evaporated and everything it’s fine, you don’t need to drink anything, you just wash out the shot glass and put it away, like normal. But if you find it like 10 minutes after you take it out, you have to drink the shot. But it works, I believe it, I’ve found stuff before, like I couldn’t find it, and then like it’ll turn up, and I’ll be like, ‘ya, I don’t know how I could have ever found this before.’”


My informant has practiced this folk-belief for as long as he can remember, and has consistently used it every time he loses and object and can’t find it after looking around for it, because he believes that the shot works to help him find whatever he lost. He also continues to practice this practice because it’s a sort of family tradition that’s been passed through the generations, thus tying him to his family and his heritage. Also, the informant’s background is Polish Jewish, both his grandmother and mother are from New York City, and his great grandmother came over from Poland, so it makes sense that the practice involves vodka, which is one of the most common forms of liquor consumed in Poland.


The shot of vodka serves two purposes: when the shot is first poured, the performer’s belief in the guarantee that the item will show up allows them to relax and stop fixating over the possible locations of the lost item, so they stop panicking and are more susceptible to subconsciously remembering where the put the item; the second purpose of the shot is a means of celebration or self-congratulations after having found the missing object, though it could also be consumed as a way to keep the object from disappearing again. In either way, this fun folk-belief is an example of both a magic and a conversion superstition. It is a magic superstition in that the performer undertakes the action of pouring the shot of vodka to cause the lost item to reappear, and a conversion superstition in that pouring the shot also undoes the bad thing of the item getting lost in the first place, and hypothetically keeps it from happening again.

Treif Second Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in our family is like, my mom’s holiday cuz we divvy up the holidays. So we gather for thanksgiving, and we’ll have the normal stuff, turkey, stuffing, the commonplace stuff for thanksgiving. But a lot of our family keeps decently kosher because they’re more strictly Jewish than I am, so there’s a few of us in the family who aren’t as strict Jews. So the Sunday or Saturday after thanksgiving, or after Passover if I’m in town, then we’ll have two or three people in the family over, and we’ll get this big honey-baked ham, and we eat boxes of cinnamon apples, and really good mac-n-cheese blend that they make, and we put it in the oven with shrimp and Langostinos, doctor up a big meal, and have a second thanksgiving that’s the opposite of Jewish and the big family thing. It’s like the small, intimate thing without any drama. It’s our second little holiday for each little grouping.

This is a way to create a tradition around going against the older tradition. In the way that much folklore is created by oppressed groups to push back against authority, so too does this family tradition have its roots in pushing back against the larger family traditions. Not to say that participants feel oppressed by the traditional meals/jewish festivities, but this is a way to bring together the other outliers in a celebration of what is not permitted at the larger party. It’s a fun way to get together and do something slightly naughty in celebration of the larger tradition without having to adhere to all the strictures dictated by the larger group. Good way to spend time with the smaller subdivision of family that he aligns himself with.  Funny way to celebrate the holidays and family while making light/poking fun of the older strictures and restrictive practices that is part of their family heritage.

St. Patrick’s Day Cheesecake


This folk recipe has become a holiday tradition for my informant in his household on St. Patrick’s Day. His mother makes the green cheesecake for St. Patrick’s Day, and only for St. Patrick’s Day, making it a particularly special food. And, though only his mother performs the act of making the cheesecake herself, his father also plays an active role in the tradition, as do he and his brothers. Before the boys can eat the special green St. Patrick’s Day cheesecake, the father, who plays the role of the ‘connoisseur’/food critic, ‘tests’ the cake and judges how good it is in comparison with the previous years’ cheesecakes. The father’s role is an inaugural one, much like that of the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil who either kicks off Spring or portends a longer winter—the main difference being, however, that the father’s ‘disapproval’ of the cheesecake doesn’t foretell anything bad in particular, it’s more of just a show. The role of the informant and his brothers, besides eating the cheesecake, is also to take part in the show of the food critique by defending their mother’s cooking if their father deems the cake inferior to previous years. I think that this show of testing and judging the cake is an integral part to keeping the family tradition alive, because it has elevated the cheesecake from the status of a folk recipe, in which the mother is the sole performer, to a whole family affair in which each member of the family has a part that is central to the successful performance of the tradition. In defending their mother and considering the cheesecake delicious regardless of what their father says, the boys ensure that the family tradition will be continued the following year.

The cheesecake being dyed green is very important because the unusual coloring for the cheesecake is not only a clear demarcation that it is a special occasion, but green is the traditional color worn on St. Patrick’s Day, stemming from the color of St. Patrick’s shamrock that he used to explain the Holy Trinity. So, this folk recipe is not only a way for the family to come together as a whole, but also is a way to celebrate an international holiday in a unique and special way.

Don’t mess with Grandma

“My grandma’s spirit has magical powers. Like she died, and strange things have happened with her children. They get a lot of dreams with her, signifying her doing this, and like guilting, if they don’t do something then the next day her son or daughter will just like get these nightmares, like ‘hey I’m watching you.’ And one time I experienced it was when we were putting her plaque in the family’s Buddhist temple, even though we’re Catholic. We were doing the ceremony and putting her in, and all these Buddhist people brought their instruments and they were banging on them, and there were like 20 of us and we just sat in this room, and halfway in, the thing where you put the incense in started to flame up, like it’s obviously nobody could set it on fire, and it’s all stone and outside, the entire thing just looked like a ball of fire. And right when the ceremony ended, it stopped, like it was perfect timing. Also, my uncle’s wife was always really mean to my grandma when she was still alive, and she would never sit with her, and would give her mean looks, would never take care of her, and would be a complete bitch. And our family thinks our grandma always knew that, so when she died, you’re supposed to go to the temple certain times of the year to commemorate her, on death days, you go to the temple and you give her things like fruits and flowers, and one time my aunt was like, I don’t want to go, I have other things to do and the next day, she had a stroke. and these things that just like happen, I don’t think they’re coincidences. And I think my dad and mom were the best to her, always took care of her and gave her things, and so my aunts and uncles think that she took care of our family the most, because we took care of her and always remembered her, and had incense at home with her plaque. And like they were really poor before, and now they’re living very comfortably without any hardships, and they think it’s because of her. So be good to your elders. I think I would still take care of her, because I did it as a kid, but I don’t know if my next generation would do it. But I think I believe in her spirit, I’m not sure.”


My informant, who is first-generation American (her mother is from Malaysia and her father is from Macao) still participates in many traditional Chinese practices with her family, including ancestor worship. Though her family considers itself Catholic (she and her brother are non-religious), they still adhere to many traditional Buddhist practices, especially when it comes to the rites and customs surrounding death and familial spirits.  My informant said that she thought she believed in her grandmother’s spirit from what she had experienced first-hand and how her family talks about it, but that she wasn’t sure, though she definitely did not deny the spirit’s existence. This is not uncommon in many supernatural beliefs, especially when it seems hard to find physical proof of one way or the other. Instead, it’s the performer’s personal opinions that count for the acceptance of the supernatural belief.

In many cultures, and still very much alive in many Asian cultures, family honor and ancestor worship plays an integral role in the well-being of the family on a whole. As my informant said, there are specific ceremonies and Death days during which one has to go to their family’s altar in the Buddhist temple and pay their respects to their departed ancestors to keep their spirit alive and healthy within the community. If they treat the spirits right then they are rewarded with prosperity and health, but if they don’t take care of their elders’ spirits, then bad things happen to them due to their lack of respect for their dead family members. This practice of commemorating and remembering passed family members is a way for the departed to remain an active part of the family, even past death, showing that regardless of if one is alive or dead, they will not be forgotten and will continue to be a participant who holds sway in the community.

Now, whether or not you believe in the power of my informant’s grandmother’s spirit is a matter of personal opinion, and is a tricky thing to address. Personally, I believe my informant when she talks of her grandmother’s spirit playing an active role in the family politics, because not only does it help explain the mysterious burning incense receptacle during the commemoration ceremony, but also because the family sees the aunt having a stroke as in accordance with her lack of respect for her mother-in-law, both in life and death; and since she treated her elder poorly, she got treated poorly by her elder’s spirit in return. If you don’t believe in spirits or ghosts or anything of the supernatural persuasion, the grandmother’s spirit can also represent the family’s adopted moral compass, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. Further, the grandmother coming to family members in dreams could signify that they regard her as a very important and powerful member of the family, so it makes sense that she would enter their subconscious as a sort of enforcer of rules. But, regardless of whether you believe in the grandmother’s spirit as an actual thing or simply as a metaphor, she shows the importance of respecting one’s elders and keeping their spirit and name alive even after death.



Pretended Obscene riddle

‘What’s brown and sticky?’

‘A stick!’

My informant is a camp counselor at Troy Camp at USC, and spends a lot of time with children. I asked him to tell me his favorite joke, and this is what he gave me. This is a good example of pretended obscene riddles and the kinds of ‘dirty jokes’ that are allowed to be performed by and around children without being too offensive or inappropriate. For the ‘dirty minded’—myself included—the riddle seems to be talking about poo, and the joke is that the answer is a very innocuous one. The effect here is that the listener feels embarrassed for having a dirty mind, but also can revel in being in on the joke’s dirty second implicit meaning that the performer is also aware of.

Jokes like this are very popular in children’s environments, because they are an acceptable way for the children to be silly and naughty without getting in trouble for what they say. This is also an example of the play-on-words aspect of riddles that is behind why many adults think that riddles are an adult game. In our society, children are very controlled and disempowered by adults and authority, which is why a pretended obscene riddle would be so popular among children, since it’s a clever way for them to push back against the authorities without getting in trouble, and it also is a way to exercise their smarts and show that they are just as witty or sharp as adults are.