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Catch me walking under a ladder…never. Opening an umbrella inside? Nope! My friend once broke a mirror and I couldn’t be around them for a week. In the words of Michael Scott, I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious. And why shouldn’t I be? The world is a scary enough place—avoiding little things here and there or accomplishing some small act with luck in mind is a kind of buffer, a practice to help ward off whatever is out to get me that day.
Superstitions might seem lofty, but to me, they are grounding. They allow us to take the reins of control back from what might otherwise feel too vast; they ascribe meaning to that which lacks it; and they make sense out of the seemingly senseless. Perhaps. Or maybe they’re just old, pre-science, pre-technology beliefs that have stuck around like the buttons on an iPhone—no longer necessary, but comforting nonetheless.
With Friday the 13th around the corner, I’ve got bad luck on the brain. It’s quite literally the unluckiest of unlucky days, a calendar conspiracy that spurred an entire horrific franchise. In preparation, my cornicello necklace is clasped extra tight around my neck, keeping bad spirits at bay, and my underwear is on inside out (don’t ask, my dad says it’s good luck). Because this is a food site, and I’m thinking 87% of the time about what we eat, I started musing about the ways food and superstition intersect. A fistful of salt thrown into a dish will make you thirsty, but tossed over your shoulder will keep you safe, while black-eyed peas, eaten on the first of each year, promise good fortune. What other ways can the foods we cook and eat say something about how lucky—or unlucky—we may be?
Hsiao-Ching Chou, the author of the cookbook Chinese Soul Food, says that when it comes to luck in China, the longer the noodle, the better. Length is all about longevity, the length of one’s food is a harbinger of life expectancy: “For New Year’s and birthdays,” she writes about a dish called Long Life Noodles, “it’s customary to wish people a long life by serving this symbolic dish. It’s important to never cut the noodles and leave them as long as possible. If you make your own noodles, you can make them even longer than what you might find at the market.”
A search for food superstitions reveals a particularly peculiar example coming out of Mexico. A Buzzfeed listicle from 2014 lists third out of the “24 Outrageous Superstitions Only Mexicans Will Understand” a fear of dropping tortillas on the ground. No, this isn’t related to the five-second rule, but rather something with a more cosmic bearing. It seems that in Mexico, the act of dropping tortillas on the ground will conjure the arrival of one’s in-laws, showing up unannounced to pay you a particularly unfortunate visit. Aside from a perfectly edible tortilla now soiled by whatever germs may be on your floor, an undesirable visit from the parents of your loved one ranks pretty high on the scale of things many would prefer to avoid.
"There are so many superstitions in Mexican culture around tortillas. I have heard of the in-laws one. Then there's if the tortilla puffs up you are ready to get married, if it doesn't you are bound to live with your parents forever," said Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, restaurateur and two-time Top Chef contestant. "I used to think I wasn't superstitious when I was younger but as I get older I genuinely freak out at some of the old school ones, like the tortilla ones. Maybe it's a time release gene for Mexicans? Once you reach a certain age you really do not want the clan to come unannounced and depends what kind of in-laws you have. Thankfully, mine are 3,000 miles away."
In Slovakia, people carry fish scales, said to resemble coins, in their wallets like an aquatic plea for prosperity. Meanwhile, this Oregon newspaper claims directly handing a hot pepper to an acquaintance will invite animosity into the relationship—place it on a surface for them to grab instead (unless, that is, you want to make an enemy). We’ve all seen newlyweds being showered with rice, and a wishbone getting snapped in half after a long, languid meal. Food, that which gives us sustenance, also assumes a layer of supernatural meaning. Baseball players might eat the same meal before a game, not for nutritional benefit so much as spiritual consistency. Where do these beliefs come from? Who knows. How do they stay relevant? It’s hard to say, but with food as one of the most organizing practices we have in our daily lives, it seems almost inevitable.
What are some food-related superstitions you’ve encountered? Let them be heard in the comments below.