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Food & meal superstitions, customs, symbols, etc.

I know there are a lot of superstitions, customs and symbolism related to food/eating out there that are both logical (or historically logical) or not apparent. Superstitions and symbols have always fascinated me in an odd way, their meaning or reason.

The one symbol I always remember (esp. since Chinese New Year is upon us) is the Chinese superstition/image of a solo set on chopsticks resting on top of an empty rice bowl is a symbol of death. I always took this as the symbol of the ultimate foodie...I'm done, it's over, i.e., you're dead when you finish eating. I have no idea of the real meaning...but if anyone knows, I'm interested in hearing it.

I've also heard several superstitions related to knives. The one I remember best one from a Turkish friend. When I first met her I remember her saying, "I can't take the knife from you like that if we're going to be friends." I asked why and the response was, "In Turkey friends never hand each other knives, you put it on the table and I take it." I don't know if it was true but it reminded me of the concept of handing off scissors handle first so it made sense.

There must be a million superstitions for different cultures and it would be interesting to hear them which in turn gives a slightly better understanding of food and where ti comes from and who prepares it.

So, do you know of any superstitions related to food or eating?

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  1. I've been told that if you drop a fork it means company's coming, but if you drop a knife it means someones going to die. I try not to worry about it too much, since people are always visiting and dying, hopefully not in that order.
    I always hated the spilled salt superstition, you have to throw it over your (left?) shoulder or you're cursed, something to do with the devil? but I got in the habit of doing this after working with someone at a deli that always did it (for some reason she spilled a lot of salt).

    1. I've heard the closer you hold the chopsticks to the bottom, the closer to home you're going to marry.

      1. I had always heard that a pair of chopsticks UPRIGHT in a bowl of rice was symbolic of death, because (a) they look like sticks of incense at a Buddhist funeral; and/or (b) because that's the traditional way of 'serving' the deceased on the family altar.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ricepad

          Me too, I thought chopsticks sticking out of a bowl was gauche. Resting across is wrong too? I'm in trouble...

        2. Breaking pasta. I believe it's a Chinese custom that long pasta noodles represent long life (or something like that). Anyway, I hate to see it when people break spaghetti (linguini, fettucini, etc.) before putting it into boiling water. Or who cut their served pasta noodles with their fork to eat them.

          1. I learned somewhere that you're never supposed to put a knife on the table so it's pointing at anyone. I forget if it means they're going to die, or if it's an indication that you hope they will.

            Also that if you chew with your mouth open &/or talk with your mouth full, it means you were raised by wolves. (Oh, wait a sec... :-/ )

            4 Replies
            1. re: misterbrucie

              ah...but in many parts of asia, it is ok to chew and talk with food in your mouth and in japan it is polite to slurp your noodles.

              1. re: justagthing

                Yeah, but try telling that to my mom. Better yet, try it when you're 10 years old.

              2. re: misterbrucie

                It's going to be tough to put down and knife and NOT have it pointing at anyone.

                1. re: PeterL

                  Just point it at the person you like the least!

              3. Isn't there one where you are never supposed to give a knife to someone but rather that the recipient should at least give you a penny?

                3 Replies
                1. re: Otonabee

                  I could be mistaken, but from what I understand, you're not supposed to 'give' knives as gifts - people are supposed to buy them from you. So the 'givers' tape pennies to the knives so that the receivers can give the pennies back to 'buy' the knives.

                  1. re: tochipotle

                    That's it, I knew I wasn't crazy. Thanks!

                    1. re: tochipotle

                      Yes, the person "buys" the gift knife as to not have the knife "cut" the friendship.

                  2. that it was bad luck to slice bread with a knife--you should rip it with your hands. don't know the *reason*.

                    1. I can remember when I was growing up, the grownups always told us that it would "poison" you, or make you sick to eat ice cream after eating fish. You were supposed to wait a day or so.

                      1. Especially in the southern U.S., there are traditions about foods that are lucky to eat on New Years Day. Eating black-eyed peas is supposed to bring prosperity in the new year. Another version is that you eat black-eyed peas to bring you coins, and cooked greens for paper money.

                        1. about the knives - i heard you are never supposed to give knives as a gift - or buy one for a loved one. I heard it symbolises a severing of the relationship (this from my transylvanian friend).

                          Also not about knives, when we were kids and I ate meat, whenever my mother served pork she wouldnt allow us to drink water because she believed it would kill us. She seemed to think the combination would cause some kind of reaction.

                          1. Here are two from Nepal:
                            You should never hand hot peppers directly to someone - it will cause discord between you.
                            If you accidentally bite your tongue, it means that you will soon partake in a feast.

                            1. you should never pass salt directly to someone, always put the salt cellar down - it means passing sorrow on.

                              well that's what my mum always said!

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: smartie

                                this can also be averted by passing the salt and pepper together-- hence the table manners rule that you never pass one cellar without the other.

                              2. Wasting or throwing out bread or wine would send most people in my family into a gasping state of panic in my family.

                                I remember once as a teen, taking a friend to a Portuguese celebration in which loaves of sweet bread are given out. My friend wasn't too interested in the bread and decided to pick it apart and feed it to the birds. When a group of older folks realized what she was doing, they started circling around us and pleading with her to stop. With very unpeaceful expressions, they tried to explain the sacrilege she'd commited.

                                1. Chinese superstition says if you drop your chopstick(s) on the floor, someone will be treating you to a meal. I think it only works if you drop them *by accident*!

                                  1. Chinese gamblers think its bad luck if you have a fork or a knife pointed at them.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: SomeRandomIdiot

                                      Or if the head of the chicken, lobster, or other edible creature is pointed at them!

                                    2. My grandma always told us it was bad manners to sing at the table, but she didn't know why. (She said that's what her father told her, and when she was little if your father told you not to do something, you didn't ask why, you just didn't do it.) I asked some of the older folks up here about it, and they recited a proverb, something like "Sing at the table and you'll cry before nightfall." I have no idea if that's what Grandpa was talking about or not--he was from Illinois, which is where the ancestors of a lot of our local folks are from, while most of my relatives are from Oklahoma and points south.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: revsharkie

                                        from upstate NY, and have heard the phrase "sing at the table, cry before bed" at quite a few homes growing up. I think the parents just wanted the kids to be quiet and eat.

                                      2. Another one I just thought of: there's a folk song that has a fellow who was killed by being fed fried eels. Evidently there was this belief that eels were poisonous. Mike will eat eel sushi, but I'll never try it because of poor Lord Randal.

                                        1. Just thought of another one...the Chinese believe that it is bad luck for the fisherman if you flip a whole fish over. You're supposed to eat the meat from one side, then remove the skeletal structure, then eat the other side. If you flip the fish, you're symbolically flipping the fishermen's boat.

                                          (I confess...last week, I flipped a fish over...but I flipped it right back I swear!)

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: ricepad

                                            I've actually heard that it's not the *fisherman's* boat that will flip, but *yours* - i.e. it's bad luck for the next person who will be traveling. I wonder if handling your chicken roughly bodes badly for your next plane trip!

                                            1. re: 2m8ohed

                                              since chickens are essentially flightless birds (i think the longest recorded flight is like 13 seconds), perhaps it only applies to short flights in something like a puddle-jumper.

                                              1. re: 2m8ohed

                                                I refuse to discuss how I handle my chicken!

                                            2. Eating pickled herring on New Years Eve for good luck... that's the only one I can think of.

                                              1. In Japan, it's rude to touch chopsticks or pass foods directly using your chopsticks with another person. I think it symbolizes death, as in some Buddhist ritual where you pass the remains around using chopsticks...

                                                I think.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: eatfood

                                                  Same is true of leaving your chopsticks sticking up from a bowl of rice.

                                                2. In Italian cooking recipes do not mix cheese and fish.

                                                  1. Eating 12 grapes with a wish apiece during the first 12 seconds of the new year will grant you the 12 wishes. If you don't manage it, you get nothing. I was told to do this in Cuernavaca, Mexico

                                                    1. I've always been told to never mix raw oysters and hard whiskey..not sure why, but I never tested the theory

                                                      1. The chopsticks in the bowl reminds me of the Chinese proverb that says hell is a huge banquet where the chopsticks are longer than your arms, so the people starve. Heaven is the same banquet, but the people feed each other. I learned from my grandmother that you had to pay for the knife a friend gives you, or you will murder them with it. Gotta love the old country. (She was from Romania). Only eat clams in a month with an "r" in it.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: soundboy

                                                          I thought the month has to end in "R".

                                                          Your method omits the summer (may to august) months, which makes sense also.