By Robin Chotzinoff
Illustrations by Bambi Edlunch
All the food superstitions in the quiz (opposite page) are truly documented superstitions, except for 2b, the one about wealth, fat and bacon, which I made up. But that’s the thing with these customs—they had to start somewhere, and surely that means somewhere random. For instance, an Orthodox Jewish housewife will swing a live chicken around her head before Yom Kippur, in the hope that it will absorb her sins pre-atonement. Did this commandment emanate from God? Is it mentioned in the Bible? No. It came from Rabbis With Too Much Time On Their Hands, and if they could push through such a ludicrous policy, there’s hope for me.
Perhaps someday the pig/bacon/wealth superstition will be accepted as culinary peasant wisdom and I will have been the original peasant—a job for which I have the right DNA.
The Russian-Jewish side of my family was full of food tics. (The Irish Catholic side was more interested in drinking.) On New Year’s Eve, for a good luck reset, we ate pickled herring in cream sauce. I had to pay Aunt Cookie one cent for the Chinese cooking cleaver she gave me as a wedding present, because a knife must never be a gift. That would be wicked bad luck, as they say in Maine, just like painting a boat blue, or, to get back to food, bringing a banana on board a ship, let alone a whole cargo of them, which pretty much guarantees a shipwreck or pirate attack.
My father—who lived on a boat, in case you need the continuity spelled out—believed that good fortune should be celebrated with a New York strip steak cooked medium-rare, and that if you failed to observe this custom, Dionysus would get mad and withhold future hedonistic pleasure. Dad also believed in the inherent luck of the spring day upon which the Sabrett hot dog cart first appeared on the shoulder of the Sunrise Highway. And further, that whoever finished their spring hot dog first should get a bite of everyone else’s. Bad luck for you if you didn’t feel like sharing.
In his family, if you spilled salt, you threw a pinch over your left shoulder to keep away miscellaneous bad spirits. You never handed the salt to another person—within minutes, an argument would break out. Before the first sip of wine, you were to spill a drop on the earth, unless you were drinking in a city apartment and there was no earth, in which case you were excused and your luck held. The last step of eating a soft-boiled egg was to poke a hole in the bottom of the eggshell. No one explained it at the time, but I now know it lets the devil out, and that the custom can be traced to the British Isles, where the devil appears more often at breakfast than he does in, say, Corsica, where he carries off anyone who falls asleep under a fig tree. (Fig-tree sleeping is an evening activity, right?)
I don’t know who started it, but whenever Yorkshire pudding was served, Aunt Cookie and my father threw squares of it at each other, aiming for the face. A direct hit meant at least a month of good luck. But even if it didn’t make its target, it was hilarious for toddlers, until they found out that throwing food, like voting, is a privilege reserved for adults. Both Aunt Cookie and my dad, having eaten the single olive of mortality, are no longer around to explain this stuff, leaving adults like me to carry on traditions. Sure, they’re ridiculous, but I do it. I carry on.
I try to peel oranges so that the peel comes off in one long strip, which I then throw on the floor, where the shape it assumes might…must!…correspond to the first letter of my true love’s name. (Don’t try this with a satsuma unless your true love’s name begins with a comma.) And I cheat at turkey-wishbone pulling. I can’t say how, but I really need to win. It’s very important that I get my wish, which I also can’t reveal. Usually it works, but just to be safe, especially at this time of year, I make sure my diet contains adequate bacon, which adds crunchy richness to life, as everyone knows. Or will, eventually.
Happy New Year!