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10 (other) superstitions related to food

A new journey through curious beliefs and odd behaviours
January 16, 2020
14 min.
In a recent post, we discussed superstition at the table. And we received so many interesting comments and testimonials on superstitions and beliefs we didn’t know about, that we decided to collect them all and write a new post on this fascinating topic! So here we are, with TEN new superstitions at the table from all over the world! Thank you to all those who told us about the customs of their country, whether on our social media channels or on the Italian version of our website.

1. Water and bread

Let us start with a small superstition, which we were not able to identify with any particular region. It appears that housewives should not drink water while baking bread, in order to avoid compromising the leavening.

2. Bananas

Now let’s pass right on to something we find a bit more curious. In the United Kingdom, sailors, who are supposedly very superstitious regardless of their nationality, prefer never to bring bananas on board a ship. There are many explanations for this superstition: it is believed that they bring bad luck to fishing, to the crew, or to the ship itself. On the other hand, it seems that in Vietnam people prefer to avoid eating bananas a few hours (or even a few days) prior to an important event, since they could metaphorically “slip”, and encounter problems during the event or even fail in the endeavor.

3. Customs of medieval origin

Many were the customs and traditions related to colours in the middle ages. Most are now lost. If red was considered a virtuous colour, so that the ladies wore coral necklaces to ward off diseases, the same could not be said of yellow which, in almost all Italian cities, was worn by prostitutes. On certain days you were only allowed to eat white (the so-called biancomangiare or white-eating) for symbolic reasons. However, many dietary customs linked to religious beliefs are still widely practised in Italy and elsewhere which, during the middle ages, would have been observed by the entire community. These include the practice of not eating meat on Fridays or during the Holy Week before Easter Sunday, and the various fasts observed during the forty days of Lent, a tradition that has parallels in other Abrahamic religions: consider the fast throughout the month of Ramadan in Islam, or the ritualistic Passover feast in Judaism.

4. Cutlery and Knives

There are many warnings, traditions and superstitions related to the use of cutlery. For example, an English saying, “Stir with a knife, stir up strife”, reminds us not to stir anything in the kitchen using a knife (be it liquid, flour, powder or anything else) as this could cause bad luck. Knives should not be passed from hand to hand but placed on a flat surface so that they can be taken. And another thing: Knives shouldn’t be offered as presents, but if you want to offer a knife as a gift then it should be accompanied by a coin, which when returned by the recipient will symbolize the purchase of the object, therefore the friendship is saved from being “sliced”. Ukrainian friends inform us that, in their country, bringing food to the mouth with the tip of the knife can cause bad luck. There are also many ways of interpreting the future using cutlery. If a piece of cutlery falls on the floor, visitors will arrive: a woman if it is fork, a man if it is a knife. Unless it is a pregnant woman who drops the cutlery, as in this case it could indicate the sex of the baby. It appears that there are also methods of predicting the sex of a mother’s baby by placing a fork on her belly.

5. How (not) to use chopsticks in Japan

When you are in the Land of the Rising Sun or in the company of Japanese friends, there are two things you must not do at the table: stick chopsticks into your bowl of rice or pass food with chopsticks. Japanese people's kindness will forgive your faux pas with a few (polite) smiles, but these gestures should be definitely avoided. Both are, in fact, symbols of death and a bad omen. In both cases, such a belief derives from the rituals related to the death of a loved one. One of the offerings presented to the dead is a bowl of rice with chopsticks stuck upright in it. After cremation, the most intimate relatives of the deceased use chopsticks to collect the remains left in the ashes, which are then relayed from one chopstick to the next until being placed in the funeral urn. Definetly a gesture that should not be performed with food!

6. …and what to avoid in China

It is said that in China the noodles are, due to their length, an omen for longevity. As a result, cutting them is a bad omen. They should always be eaten uncut, at the risk of emitting the notorious “sucking” sound which distinguishes restaurants in the majority of the Far East. Incidentally, our Japanese and Chinese friends tell us that the sucking action is not due to superstition, but to the fact that most of the time the spaghetti are hot, often immersed in boiling soups, and sucking them helps with the cooling process...It thus corresponds to our “blowing” on hot meals.

In China, one should also pay attention to how many courses are ordered. The local superstitions require the number to always be even. A friend of ours from the Czech Republic informed us that a similar tradition is practiced there too, but that it is applied only during the Christmas dinner: the table must be set for an even number of guests.

7. Amorous hypertension in Russia

Our Russian friends told us that in their country it is said that if a woman puts too much salt when she cooks it means she is in love. It is also said that this belief leads many new brides to abound with salt when they cook for their in-laws or during the first months of marriage when there are guests, so as not to arouse suspicion about the goodness of their feelings towards their husband. With good peace of mind of those with hypertension problems.

8. Taboos: women and menstruation

Let’s come to a very deep-seated taboo, widespread in space and time. They are impossible to accept today for many of us, but in many societies there were taboos, rules and beliefs that related the menstrual cycle to the kitchen. In numerous cultures women were removed from the family home during the period. According to some Italian beliefs, if there is a woman in a wine cellar during wine fermentation, and she has her period, then the wine turns sour. We do have a suspicion that this last story has been made up by some wine-loving farmer who was only looking for excuses to get rid of his wife from the cellar. We have also been told about another superstition—mayonnaise should not prepared by a woman during her period.

9. The best thing since sliced bread!

We already talked about bread in the last post regarding superstition at the table. Let's come back to the subject because we have been told more about that. We heard for example that in some cultures finding a sizeable hole of air inside the loaf when cutting it is considered bad luck. This superstition does not apply to Apulian or Altamura bread whose holes, thankfully, do not bring bad luck! But talking about Apulia and the traditions across the heel of our boot, it is customary there to cut a cross into the top of loaves to ward off the devil. The practice is also useful to allow the dough to rise, but that’s another story. Still on the subject of bread, in some Jewish communities, bread is not cut but torn as it is considered sacred and should not be subjected to symbolic violence with a knife.

10. Rice and marriage

It is customary in Italy to throw rice on newlyweds as they step outside of the church or the town hall after celebrating their union. This superstition is not exactly related to eating, but rather to an ingredient. It appears that the custom dates all the way back to the Romans. In Ancient Rome, grains of wheat were thrown at the newlyweds just like we still do today. This was said to bring prosperity and fertility. So why did we switch to rice? Who knows…

11. Onions

Okay, okay, we lied! But with good reason. We wrote “10 new superstitions about food” but we’re actually going to tell you about thirteen. It’s just that thirteen is unlucky, and well… ten sounded better. Let’s talk about onions then, because you know all about garlic from our previous post. According to our English friends, onions have protective or talismanic powers too, similar to those of garlic. In English-speaking countries some people believe that putting onions under a sick person’s bed will help them recover, while others string them up in the house (especially at the entrance) to guard against illness, accident and curses. It seems that onions were also used to predict fortunes: each bulb would be associated with a choice and the first to germinate would indicate the best choice to make.

12. Tea

You can tell your fortune by reading the tealeaves that settle on the bottom of your cup, if you brew it the old-fashioned way, that is without using a tea bag but putting the tea leaves directly into the hot water. An old British friend told us that in the UK, where tea is drunk with milk, some believe that the milk must be added after the sugar or you won’t marry. We have friends who always put the milk before the sugar now when making tea, after telling them about this superstition. Lots and lots of milk in fact and a good few minutes before the sugar!

13. …and coffee

And if you go to Greece, taste the local coffee, which tastes different to ours. However, before you sip, take a look at the bubbles. They seem to tell us a lot about our future. Our friend, Irene, told us about the many possible shapes and directions. Here we’ll just say that if they’re further away from us, there is trouble in sight. If they’re nearer, it’s a sign that happy moments are in store for us. And since it is Greek coffee, which is not filtered or drunk in its entirety because it has deposits on the bottom, we can read the future by turning the cup upside down and deciphering the shapes of the coffee dregs that drip along the edges of the cup... happy reading!

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