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Food Superstitions Rooted in Culture, Religion

Don’t spill salt without throwing a pinch of it over your shoulder to ward off bad luck. And for good luck, hope for a double yolk egg when you crack it. Common food superstitions such as these pepper our culinary lives. But they might seem a bit tame compared with their curious cousins across the globe — things like drinking soda as a form of prayer, having cake on your “name day,” or inviting bad luck by passing food directly between chopsticks.

But it’s all about perspective. One person’s superstition is another person’s religion, way of life, or cultural identity.

“One thing that we might consider to be a superstition, others might consider to be a truth,” says Ken Rubin, Chef Director at The Art Institute of Portland. “Superstition is one perspective — an outsider perspective — about what a group of people might feel about a food.”

And while food superstitions are usually rooted in culture and religion, they sometimes stray from their origins. Rubin, a food historian, says it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how, when, where, and why the customs develop.

“Superstitions sometimes are so old in a culture that they’ve changed over time, and maybe at one point in time it was something else,” he says. “A lot of what we take as cultural truths are not things that happened by way of cultural progression. It’s not linear.”

In other cases, traditions and superstitions around food are sometimes are deliberately invented for a variety of purposes.
Sophia Andali is Director of Student Affairs and Career Services at The Art Institute of Salt Lake City and a native of Greece. She came to the U.S. when she was 20, brining with her some of the food traditions and superstitions she learned from her family. She wound up sharing those customs with her coworkers.

“Every year I baked a cake using my grandmother’s recipe and put a coin in it,” she explains. “People got to know what it was about, so they would flip the cake over to see where the coin was so they could ‘win.’”

That cake and its winning coin draw from a Christmas cake tradition Andali and other Grecians practice. The legend dates back to the 1400s, she says, when the emperor would collect jewelry to help finance wars. Once the Greeks won a particular battle, the fees were no longer needed. So, women were asked to bake pies and cakes with the jewelry inside. Each donor then got a piece of cake with a piece of jewelry, whether or not they originally owned it.

“The Greek version of Santa Claus was the one who ordered the women to make the pies and cakes,” Andali adds. “Now every year, we do the Christmas cake. They call it the Vasilopita cake. Whoever gets the coin gets to have good luck for the year.”

That sense of good luck — or bad luck — is a popular outcome for food superstitions. Fostering an aversion or taboo to certain foods can help maintain cultural order.

“Some food might be good and some might be evil, or represent men or women, or the moon or sun,” Rubin explains. “Those dichotomies are all part of a structural organizational model designed for the maintenance of order. Cultures very much reflect certain sensibilities on maintaining an orderly identity.”

Cultures are then able to identify outsiders based on their relationship to certain foods. It is also a way to discern which members of a culture or group are not concerned with the societal order. But what is taboo for one group may be commonplace for another. For example, Rubin says that no matter how much of a ‘foodie’ a person is in the U.S., certain foods are still taboo or frowned upon. He talks about offering culinary students duck embryos as part of a class assignment.

“Most of them would refuse to eat it, but for the ones who would try it, some would even go back for another bite,” he says.

That can differ greatly in places across the globe. Rubin spent time studying in other countries and says: “Many world cultures have a deeper connection with food on many levels.”

He says that while in Mexico, he witnessed indigenous people who practiced exhaling deeply as part of their ritualized prayer process. Once they discovered that soda could force air out of their bodies, by burping, they added it to their praying.

“To them, that was amazing and a great way to pray,” Rubin explains. “The village had developed in a hierarchy of soda brands that would signify class [based on which] could produce the most gas.”

No matter how strange food superstitions may seem to groups who don’t practice them, they can bring cultures and people together, Andali says.

“Cultures and countries with strong roots in their traditions will continue them and pass them down generations and generations,” she points out. “The way that my grandmother was making it and my mom was making it is the way that I make it.”

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