Very superstitious: Severing friendships and wishing upon cakes
September 29th, 2011
10:00 AM ET
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A colleague recently came to me with a burning food question.

It wasn’t the usual “where should I take my visiting vegan cousin for dinner?” or “what the heck do I do with a butternut squash anyhow?” Rather, the conversation veered toward an edgier topic: kitchen knives.

He was attending a wedding later in the month and wanted to give the future Mr. and Mrs. something more on the functional side; an item they’d actually use on a day-to-day basis instead of some highfalutin punch bowl only brought out once in a blue moon.

"No, no, no! Don't do that. It's bad luck,” piped up a neighboring editor.

She went on to explain the old wives' tale that a knife as a present will “cut” the ties of friendship. To prevent this, it’s customary for the giver to include a penny with the knife so that the recipient can “buy” the knife for the bargain price of one cent - thus eliminating any threat of severing a perfectly good companionship. (And also perhaps proving that you can buy friendship.)

From there, our conversation soon took a sharp turn and plunged into food superstitions.

There are the usual suspects like birthday cake. The standard belief is that the birthday guy or gal makes a wish before blowing out the candles, and if they blow them all out in one puff, the wish will become reality. And unfortunately for blabbermouths, if the honoree divulges what their wish was, then it won't come true.

Then there’s the ceremonial breaking of the wishbone: Two people grab respective sides of the clavicle and make a wish while pulling it apart. Whoever ends up with the longer piece will get a "lucky break."

Or if you spill salt, you’re supposed to toss a pinch over your left shoulder. With this one, there are many origin theories, including the imagery of spilt salt as a sign of bad luck as depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper.” In the painting, Judas, who ultimately betrays Jesus, has knocked over a nearby bowl of salt.

It's also thought you toss the seasoning over your left shoulder to ward off evil instead of your right because of the mythology that the Devil sits on your left shoulder, while an angel holds down the fort on your right.

It just gets more esoteric from there.

An old belief in British fishing ports was if you don’t crush the egg shells after you’re done eating boiled eggs, witches will use the discarded shells as boats to set sail and wreak havoc on the seas. In 1934, Elizabeth Fleming wrote in a poem "Egg-Shells":

“Oh, never leave your egg shells unbroken in the cup;
Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up;
For witches come and find them and sail away to sea,
And make a lot of misery for mariners like me.”

And when you aren't worrying about pint-sized paddling conjurers, you might want to watch where you're walking: popular lore goes that if two people are walking hand-in-hand and something comes between them causing them to let go of hands like a lamp-post or person, the parties must say “bread and butter” so their relationship doesn't become separated as well.

In the American South, you can even whip up your own luck. It’s customary to serve stewed collard greens and black-eyed peas on New Year's Day to cook up good fortune in the coming year.

And during the Chinese New Year, if you cut your noodles - a food signifying longevity - you’ve just moonlighted as the Grim Reaper and snipped away from your life expectancy.

But all these are just the tip of the iceberg (wedge). Share your own weird, wacky and wild food superstitions in the comments below and we’ll our favorites in an upcoming post. Good luck!

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Filed under: Bite • Culture • Rituals

soundoff (127 Responses)
  1. Emmi

    There nothing like watching a kid spit all over their birthday cake. Thank goodness for cupcakes!!!

    November 1, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
  2. inhyderabadmall

    Happy Birthday to her, it's nice celebration with sweet cake

    October 1, 2011 at 2:01 am |
  3. Aubrie

    Green M&M's make you "frisky"...... Oysters are good for the libido....... Don't eat cold food when you have a cold..... An egg under your bed takes away headaches....... garlic keeps evil spirits away....... eating hot peppers and spicey food is good for fertility and trying to get pregnant....... Hanging a pickle on the Christmas tree brings good luck to the child who finds it....... a decorative container of salt is given as a gift for peace and prosperity in a new home...... Soap under your sheets at the foot of the bed take away leg cramps at night...... tea leaves in a tea cup can tell your future....... There are so many!!!

    September 30, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Seola

      Actually, a couple of these are proven, well at least plausible in studies. Oysters raise testosterone levels needed for both men and women for drive. :D Spicy food is thought to increase blood flow, increasing fertility indirectly by raising this blood flow. So it's not all superstition anymore – may have started that way!

      September 30, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
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