Tag Archives: Eating

When Eating Breakfast Reflects A Poor Man’s Custom

Informant:  “…I’m sure you’ve seen me do this at breakfast.  Whenever I order eggs, sausage, and hashed browns, I’ll cut it up and mix it all together in a kind of mash.”

Interviewer: “How long have you been doing that?”

Informant: “Oh um, ever since I was really little.  That’s the way I’ve seen my dad do it throughout my life and I guess it just caught on.  It wasn’t until high school when I got called out for it.”

Interviewer: “Called out for it? Why?”

Informant: “Well, when I was at boarding school… it was a pretty ritzy school, I had a scholarship to go there, but it was full of kids who uh, came from old money or whatever…  But anyways, me and my classmates went out to breakfast one day, I ordered the usual – eggs, sausage, hashed browns – sliced it up and mashed it all together.  I started eating, and my friend says to me in this judgmental way… ‘You know…that’s the way a poor man eats….’  I was really embarrassed… I didn’t know what she was talking about.  I thought she was just being a bitch… so I kept mixing it all together.  But… I was kind of offended.  When I came home – it must have been during a holiday vacation – I went out to breakfast with my family, and my dad and I, we ordered our usual and started eating it in the same way we had always done…  But this time, I told him what my classmate said and… you know what… he actually told me that she was right!”

Interviewer: “What? …Really?”

Informant: “[laughs] Yea, I know…  I was surprised too, dude!  So… supposedly, it’s a custom that came from the Great Depression.  Mashing it all together, it was a way to hide rancid meat…

Interviewer: “No way!”

Informant: “Yea, my… great-grandfather lost his business and lived in one of those, those little shantytowns in the Midwest, so that’s supposedly where it all started.  My dad said that that’s how his dad ate and how his grandfather – my great-grandfather – did too… I had no idea it was such a long tradition.”

Interviewer: “That’s pretty crazy… that just a way of eating can survive generations.”

Informant: “Yea, it’s pretty cool.  And I don’t even care that it’s a symbol of ‘lower-class.’  Whatever…  I think of it more now as a type of historical family custom…”

 

The notion that people were forced to eat rotten meat after losing everything during the Great Depression makes sense since they didn’t have the means to buy better quality meats.  In some cases, they practically had to scavenge from the bottom of the barrel to survive.  Whether or not her family custom of eating dates to the Great Depression, the tradition shows how behavior can also be treated as folklore since it can be passed down vocally and visually.  This is also an example of nonsensical folklore, not because it doesn’t make sense, but because there is no underlying meaning to the action; it is simply done because that’s the way it has been done, “because that’s the way my father did it.”

Jewish Saying Summing Up Every Holiday

“The way you can sum up every Jewish holiday, for the most part, is: they tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat. It means to me two different things. One is very serious… for some reason, so many other cultures have decided that the Jews should be annihilated. The other thing it means to me, that bothers me, is that many of our uh… that Jews tend to dwell on these negative events to define who they are and what they are about.”

 

The informant told me that she doesn’t know where she first heard this phrase, but that “probably some other Jew said it to me.” I have heard this phrase and similar phrases throughout my entire life, and I have often used a variation of this phrase to try to explain my religion or the holidays we engage in to people who are unfamiliar with Judaism.

The thing that interests me the most is this informant’s take on the phrase. I have usually heard this phrase used in a way that is dismissive (oh, all of our holidays are just like this…) or, more often, in a way that is humorous. It’s almost comical to think that most Jewish holidays follow this pattern and that they usually involve the consumption of a lot of food, which seemingly, on the surface, has little relevance to the heavier, darker fact that Jews have been persecuted and have had to escape death time and time again.

For instance, Sean Altman is a singer-songwriter who performs under the band name Jewmongous. He has a comedic song called “They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)” that supposedly explains the story of Pesach. It contains a ton of pop culture references and factual inaccuracies, which is supposed to prove that all of the details of the holiday are basically irrelevant, because all you need to do is boil down the holiday to this one simple phrase, which is contained in the chorus. The song is available as an MP3 and on a CD, which you can purchase on his website at http://www.jewmongous.com/. You can also watch a live performance of the song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34atu3WGUgc).

Despite the fact that this phrase is typically repeated for its humor, I have always heard this informant use the phrase in a sort of melancholy way. To her, the phrase represents a long and depressing history of the Jewish people, and she believes that the use of this phrase, combined with the practice of Jewish holidays, tends to perpetuate a tendency to dwell on the negative. While I see her point and definitely agree that Jews tend to have a martyr complex, I strongly believe that this phrase is a way for Jewish people to reclaim their history and bring joy by making light of very serious problems. Rather than dwell on the negative, we look forward to the positive— in this case, a large feast.