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10 food superstitions

A journey through ancient beliefs and strange food-related behaviours
September 01, 2019
13 min.
Believing in superstitions is a sign of ignorance,
but not believing in them will bring you bad luck.

 Eduardo De Filippo

Italy is a land brimming with popular traditions and beliefs, where everything to do with food is a passion. It is therefore quite unsurprising that there are many curious food-related behaviours, legends and superstitions. It’s not just black cats and broken mirrors after all! Indeed, many of Italy’s superstitions revolve around common kitchen ingredients, and how to behave around the stove and at the table. And there are many, many more beyond the borders of our beautiful country. Today, we’re going to tell you about just a few of the superstitions and beliefs that have struck us the most!

1. Never seat thirteen at the table!

The number thirteen is considered unlucky in many countries, to the extent that some airlines avoid row thirteen on their aircraft, while many hotels around the world don’t have a thirteenth floor. This is a little less true in Italy, where the unluckiest number of all is normally seventeen, with the exception of thirteen... seated at the table! This superstition, a norm throughout the Italian peninsula and far beyond, is mostly followed and feared. It is linked to the story of the Last Supper, the final meal Jesus shared with his apostles, before he was betrayed and condemned to death. It is in fact believed that thirteen diners brings loads of bad luck. Some people even believe that one of the thirteen will risk death in the days following the meal. How therefore to get around this? There are people who set the table for fourteen, while others divide their guests into two groups (possibly separating children and adults, to the delight of both parties!), some people try to find additional guests at the last minute while others… well, we’re not all superstitious, and many simply don’t believe in this kind of nonsense!

2. If you spill or drop the salt

When salt is spilled, it always brings bad luck! This is an ancient belief, popular in many countries. It exists in Italy, South America and Spain, to name a few. Allegedly, to avert the bad luck brought by the spilled salt, you must throw a grain of salt over your shoulder. Some believe this should be done three times.
Others even go so far as to maintain that you have to throw it with your right hand over your left shoulder.

There are those who believe this little ritual goes back to the times when salt was a precious commodity. In actual fact, soldiers were paid with this condiment in ancient Rome; the term “salary” comes from “salt ration”. Other folk believe it is related to the holiness of salt in a past era, when it was used in purification rites.

3. Water, oil and the evil eye

It is very common to use a solution of water and oil mixed in a dish to find if someone's been cursed with the evil eye. These two elements are still used even today, particularly in southern Italy, as a way of lifting the dreaded curse. In our region (Abruzzo), the rituals employed to combat the evil eye are exclusively the domain of women, and the secrets behind them are secretly passed from woman to woman during small handover ceremonies which can only take place on the night of Christmas Eve.

4. Spilled oil and wine

Beliefs about spilled oil also exist. Friends have shared that if you have the misfortune to spill some oil, you should throw a little salt on top of it to avoid any disasters! However, differently from oil and salt, accidentally spilling wine is believed to bring good fortune. This is often accompanied with a good luck gesture: dipping a finger into the wine and dabbing it on the skin behind the ears. But be careful not to pour it “like a traitor” (as they say in Rome), that is with the back of your hand facing! Legend has it that the origins of this expression date back to the Middle Ages and the idea that, by pouring wine that way, a traitor could pour poison hidden in his ring along with the wine which is only possible if pouring the wine “like a traitor”.

5. Bread is a symbol of sacredness but also of contempt

Bread was another precious and sacred food, so much so that if it fell to the ground, it had to be kissed before placing it on the table; a habit still alive in many countries. Serving upside down bread, then, seems to be a sign of contempt and ill omen, and having an upside down loaf on the table is a gesture of bad taste. It is said that these beliefs are linked to the figure of the executioner who, certainly for his profession, did not enjoy a good reputation. So it seems that the bakers, as a sign of contempt, served them the bread upside down.

6. What about eggs?

There are several superstitions about eggs. In some Northern European countries and the USA, some believe that when you are baking cakes with eggs, you will get the best results if you prepare the batter at dawn, and you should not throw out the eggshells until you've finished baking. Some people believe that if you find two yolks when you crack an egg open, you will have many children. There is also another superstition that has been passed down since the Middle Ages. While cooking, you must remember to completely crush the eggshells before throwing them away because the halves of the shells could be a lair for the devil, and by crushing them you will be avoiding any resulting misfortunes.

7. Food for wealth, good luck and against infidelity

There are many superstitions linked to certain periods of the year or to certain dishes that bring wealth, well-being, good luck... A symbol of luck and money, lentils, often accompanied by zampone (pig's trotter stuffed with spicy minced pork) or cotechino (seasoned fresh pork sausage), are a dish always found on Italian tables on New Year's Eve. This is a custom that dates back to Ancient Rome; at the start of the new year, it was customary to donate a bag full of lentils, symbolically representing coins. While this custom of having lentils is common throughout Italy, that of eating 12 grapes (preferably black) at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve is typical of many regions around Italy, as well as Spain and South America, to bring good luck for the coming 12 months. Beans and clovers bring good luck, laurel keeps family arguments away, basil can be a remedy against the evil eye and the rosemary transmits joy. Also the chilli pepper is still used today against the evil eye and, in the past, against infidelity, too: a woman suspecting that her husband had cheated on her, would put two red chilli peppers under the pillow to win him back.

8. The Power of Garlic

Garlic is a symbol of good luck and excellent protection against spells in many cultures. According to ancient widespread beliefs around the Italian peninsula, eating a clove of garlic on an empty stomach brings good fortune, in addition to being good for your health. The notion that garlic is good for your health is also widespread in Eastern Europe, while in the East it’s associated with the famous black garlic, especially the expensive Korean variety which is very popular in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. In Greece, the word itself (garlic is skórdo in Greek) brings good luck, and it is customary to hang a ceramic head of garlic in the home for protection and good luck. Instead in Poland, a clove of garlic is eaten while pronouncing the word snake in the presence of children in order to ward off the bad luck connected to the reptile. But above all and as everyone knows, garlic keeps vampires away!

9. Let’s talk about animals

According to an old superstition still common among shepherds (and those who frequent them), when someone gives you a ricotta, you must return the plate unwashed, otherwise the sheep dies.

There are numerous other anecdotes such as this one relating to the animal world, but we don’t have the space (nor the knowledge) to list them all here. We were told that if a duck lays a dark egg, this is a bad omen for the family, and that eating the head of a goose will bring you (or a relative) to madness. In ancient times, donkey milk was widely used in female cosmetics. Legend has it that the beautiful, rich, and temperamental Roman empress Poppaea Sabina used to bathe daily in the milk of 500 donkeys! Supposedly, centuries later, Paolina Bonaparte also made use of this same product. This isn’t superstition however, but rather an ancient custom, the effectiveness of which has even been recognised by modern science, in that donkey milk is rich in lipids, vitamins, and unsaturated fats which provide antioxidant and anti-ageing benefits.

10. Local superstitions: to each his own!

We leave you now with one last superstition, originating from a small town in the south of Italy, unknown to the most and suitable only to those not fearing the unknown of future. According to this tradition, on Martedì Grasso (Mardi Gras, or the last day of Lent), you should eat a special homemade pasta called "firzuoli", topped with sauce and horseradish. After taking the first mouthful from the dish, you should position yourself next to the wall to see your shade and start chewing. If your moving lips are clearly visible when looking at your shadow, it means that you will live another year. If not, you may not be around next time to repeat this little test!
Not for the faint of heart.
What about you? Would you dare looking into your shade?
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