Of Traditional Meals & Beliefs About Food

We are about to partake of one of the most honored traditional meals in America. This brings to mind countless thoughts about dining, table manners and food-related beliefs. Because food is so closely related to human relations and traditions, it makes perfect sense that it would also inspire beliefs, even superstitions.

Food beliefs are not limited to the kitchen and they are not new. Ancient Egyptians believed onions kept evil spirits away. In fact, they placed one hand on an onion while taking an oath. Imagine this in a modern courtroom!

Thanksgiving Dinner ~ David Bates (1982) ~ Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Now, consider salt. You certainly know the one about throwing salt over your left shoulder for good luck. Have you ever wondered, why salt and why the left shoulder? This practice springs from the belief that evil spirits dwelt on the left-hand side of the body. By throwing salt over your left shoulder you might actually (hopefully) be throwing it into the devil’s eyes. We continue this tradition to this day, instinctively and playfully. Surely getting salt in his eyes might irritate rather than overpower the devil, wouldn’t you think?!

The ancient Greeks, famous for their lavish feasts, believed salt to be the repository of life itself. This was due mainly to its preserving abilities. They also believed it to be a symbol of friendship. To them, spilled salt foretold the end of a friendship. Incidentally, the word salary originated from the Latin, salarium, which was the allowance given to Roman soldiers so they might purchase salt.

British and European country folks often carried around a small pouch containing salt. This was believed to bring luck in their dealings with merchants and neighbors.

Food-related beliefs abound. Some are based on fact: the cake will flatten if you open the oven door too soon. Others are based on accepted rules: clutching your fork with your fist simply does not look very distinguished.

Others yet defy explanation, but remain entertaining nonetheless.“If you drop a knife on the floor, a man will knock at your door; if you drop a fork, it will be a woman.” Why not a stork for a fork? Should it not rhyme? Precisely; no rhyme or reason.

When peeling an apple in one continuous peel, a maiden should toss it over her shoulder (the peel that is). Its shape upon landing on the floor will reveal the first letters of the name of the man she will marry. Wurblington? OK. Sounds noble enough!

How about this one? When rising from the table, try doing so without moving your chair, for moving it is a sure sign that you have lied at some time during the conversation. We’d say if you manage to not move your chair upon rising from the table, it is a sure sign that you are quite agile. Impressive. Can you do that again?

Traditional meals tug at our roots. They inspire conversations around the table that can differ widely from everyday meal time chat. This is where oral history continues it journey, bringing wisdom, color and humor to the experience of  newer generations.

What are the beliefs and stories you share at the table when all generations come together for a traditional meal?

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