customs/rituals, folklore, food, food taboos

“It’s Not on Your Father’s Diet!”

Once, when I was teaching a university foodways class, a student recalled that while growing up whenever she or her siblings requested a chicken dish, Mom responded, “It’s not on your father’s diet.”  That explanation satisfied them while they were young.  Only when she was older did this young woman ask her mother, “Why isn’t chicken on Dad’s diet?”

Mom explained that when Dad was growing up in the country, he had to walk by the chicken slaughterhouse each day.  The overwhelming stench and the terrified chicken squawks caused a lifetime aversion to chicken.  This taboo was passed on to the man’s children without their ever knowing why.

Holding My Nose to Drink Orange Juice.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2013.
Holding My Nose to Drink Orange Juice. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2013.

Food memories are powerful.  They stimulate many senses all at once: taste, smell, touch, sight.  They become indelible.  Because I was a sickly child, my parents wanted to build me up, so they hid two teaspoons of cod liver oil in my morning orange juice.  When I tried to drink it, I gagged.  To this day, I can never drink orange juice in the morning because those awful memories take over, and I can still smell and taste that malodorous fishy oil.

Sometimes food taboos are caused by individual bad experiences.  Other times they are culturally based.  Henry, one of my writing class students, related an experience he had in high school.  On his way home one day, Henry stopped at a fast food restaurant and purchased two hamburgers before he impulsively stopped to visit the home of his new classmate, Harihar.

Although the family was eating supper, Harihar’s mother invited Henry to sit at the table with them.  Henry told the mom that he had brought his own dinner.  What a shock for Henry when Harihar’s family reacted with horror when they saw the hamburgers on their dinner table.

Harihar’s family was Hindu and eating beef was a primary food taboo.  Harihar and his family couldn’t get over how thoughtless Henry was eating a religiously forbidden food in front of them.  At the same time, Henry had no idea that beef was a tabooed food and he became embarrassed when Harihar’s mom explained this to him.

Stories abound about offending people from other cultures because of food taboos as well as other conflicting customs and beliefs.  From time to time, I will relate more examples because one of my passions is understanding how cultural differences can cause people to misunderstand one another.

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who enjoys learning about cultural differences in customs and beliefs.

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customs/rituals, Festivals, folklore

Returing to Life on Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead in Mesilla.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2013
Day of the Dead in Mesilla. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2013

Day of the Dead is my favorite holiday.  My introduction to this unique celebration occurred during the 1970s.  I had never before encountered such a positive attitude toward death: children playing with toy coffins; skulls made of sugar with live people’s names of them;  round breads with raised dough crossbones; people dressed as skeletons; altars to the deceased with flowers, burning candles, incense; photos of the dead next to their favorite foods and vices — cigarettes, beer cans, whiskey shots.

Partial view of altar with  Harold Dresser's photo and cigar.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2013.
Partial view of altar with Harold Dresser’s photo and cigar. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2013.

This year, Day of the Dead was my first big outing after a head trauma and two surgeries.  I felt grateful to be alive, and there was a delicious irony in celebrating life by dramatizing death.  In Las Cruces, many venues beckoned me on this Aztec-based holiday with  Roman Catholic elements.

First, I joined Denise Chávez along with several dozen others at Casa Camino Real to participate in a candle-lit procession to San José Cemetery, accompanied by a wonderful singer/guitarist from Juarez.  At the entrance of the cemetery we formed a circle and one-by-one gave the names of the ancestors we were honoring that night.

Most of the ancestors had Latino names like Chávez, Figueroa, Silva, Mercado.  When my turn came I revealed that I was thinking about my parents, Rebecca and Issidore Shapiro, as well as my grandparents Shapiro and Friesh.  I also admitted that because my family is Jewish, I didn’t know how thrilled they would be that I was honoring them in a Catholic cemetery.  Afterward, my candle light went out.  The woman standing next to me unsuccessfully tried to relight it.  Then she offered, “Maybe it’s your ancestors who are causing the light to go out.”  We both laughed at that possibility.

When we returned to La Casa, Denise served posole, a traditional soup made from hominy and hot chocolate plus other pot luck foods contributed by the attendees.  Afterward, those who desired read or recited poetry that capped off a wonderful evening.

The following day, I went to Mesilla, where Las Cruces had its beginnings and took pictures of the altars constructed by local families to honor their loved ones.  I couldn’t resist having my face painted in traditional Day of the Dead style.  It’s great to be alive!

Inside La Posta Restaurant's altar.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2013.
La Posta restaurant’s altar. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2013.

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who is grateful to be among the living on Day of the Dead.