Don't Drop That on the Ground! (& Other Food Superstitions)

April 11, 2018

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?

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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.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.


Riddhima N. April 16, 2018
It looks so yummy, thanks for sharing.

FS April 13, 2018
This thread got me thinking of my family's food superstitions. For instance, cold drinks cause ulcers, according to mother. Cucumber salad and any beverage at the same meal will kill the eater. Leaving food out on the stove overnight (!) is OK.
Penny H. April 13, 2018
My grandfather wouldn't eat fish and drink milk at the same meal. Why? Because he did once and developed appendicitis. He insisted on passing the prohibition down to his children and grandchildren.
FS April 13, 2018
Not eating fish and drinking milk at the same meal, that's similar to being kosher, yes?
Carol April 13, 2018
No, that's not having beef (and goat or lamb) with any milk products, such as cheese or butter.
Valerio F. April 16, 2018
My family doesn't mix alcohol and watermelon... anyone else?
FS April 13, 2018
My family isn't from Slovenia, but my mother was fond of giving fish scales as good luck money charms on New Years. Imagine opening an old wallet and find a big dry fish scale instead of money!!
Valerio F. April 13, 2018
Hopefully the smell didn't last as well!
FS April 13, 2018
TBH, it was kind of nasty! :)
Gabrielle V. April 13, 2018
I did not grow up with this one, but my ex, who was from El Salvador, told me not to point at fruit forming in a tree; that it would make it fall before it ripened - and this is other one is not food related, but he also said wind-chimes brought bad luck.
Agatha B. April 13, 2018
I am from Jamaica and I was very surprised to hear my very practical no-nonsense mother tell me that I didn't want too many people looking at my cake batter - the littler children were watching me cream butter and sugar - as it would cause my cake not to rise. This other is probably more of an Easter superstition, but it involves eggs, so...Drop the white of an egg in a glass of water on Easter Sunday and put it ouside up high where it can catch the rays of the rising sun. The resulting formation is a predictor of your future e.g. little circle - wedding ring, a ship you're going on a voyage. There were also horror stories of someone seeing a box and in a few weeks they were dead, so...
Valerio F. April 13, 2018
Noted. Next time I bake I'll make sure to banish my room mates from the apartment!
Agatha B. April 16, 2018
Good plan:)
Misfitwife April 13, 2018
Pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day for good luck throughout the coming year!
Shelli B. April 13, 2018
The breaking of a pomegranate around the outside of your house also gives a blessing to the home and people within. Must be done on New Years Day. I have a very old (mid 90's) adorable as can be, a greek lady that lives next door. Still does this every year!
Amie T. April 13, 2018
As a kid I had 21 warts on my knee. My mother bought them for 21 copper pennies. They went away within 2 months. Weird?
I enjoyed this article by the way.
Joan April 13, 2018
Oh my gosh, I also had many warts on my hands and knees as a child. One day my mother rubbed each one with a copper penny and with in a few days they all went away. I have never known anyone who had the same experience!
Katie B. April 13, 2018
Never give someone the gift of a knife set, scissors, or anything sharp without also including some money, like a penny! The recipient must give the penny back to the giver. Giving a knife or anything sharp symbolizes cutting the relationship, but the money indicates the "gift" was a mutual transaction instead.
Kate K. April 13, 2018
My gram sold kitchen knives and scissors as a side business, and she was a stickler about this one when setting us up with knives.
Kate K. April 13, 2018
I should probably add that I also always ask someone to cough up a coin when I give them a knife.
Valerio F. April 13, 2018
Oh, this is really good to know! Would hate to cut someone out unknowingly...
Maggie April 14, 2018
One of those things I read and filed away somewhere is that Queen Elizabeth carries small change in her purse specifically for purchasing the ceremonial scissors when she attends ribbon cuttings. I have no idea if it's actually true, but as a very superstitious person myself, I highly approve!