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Food: Fortune Telling and Superstitions

Reading tea leaves is the probably the best known example of food as a method of deciphering the indecipherable. The one I remember best from childhood was to peel an apple in one long continuous peel. Then take the peel, toss it over your shoulder and it would form the first letter of your future beloveds name.

Can't wait to read your responses!

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  1. I don't know if this is a superstition or some crazy thing I did when I was bored as a kid -- but I would dip my soup spoon in alphabet soup trying to come up with letters that would spell a boy's name as that would be my future husband.

    1. My stories were more about superstitions:
      - In some Asian cultures, I was told not to "flip over" a fish when it was served whole on a plate, even if the meat on the top side is all eaten. Flipping over resembles ships of fishermen flipped over, and it will cause bad luck (so the proper way is to remove the bone to eat the meat on the other side without flipping)

      - My mom told me that I should never sigh during a meal as she said that it was very fortunate for me to have food to eat when there are other people were living in hunger. If I sigh I will face the "punishment" of not having food to eat in the future.
      (Did you think she made it up?)

      4 Replies
      1. re: kobetobiko

        Totally forgot about the fish one.

        I think there's another Asian superstition (may be Chinese in origin) that for every grain of rice you leave behind in your bowl, will be a pock-mark on your future spouse's face.

        And about the sigh thing -- I've never heard of that one.

        1. re: Miss Needle

          I remember the pock mark thing... although my family never took heed about the fish one.

          1. re: Miss Needle

            My Japanese friend told me about the rice thing, but I always thought it was because Japanese has so little arable land, so you shouldn't waste a grain of rice that is so hard to grow.

            Re not flipping fish: couldn't you lift off the fish spine to eat the flesh underneath it?

            1. re: pdxgastro

              That's what kobetobiko means in the parenthetical.

        2. also the obvious throwing salt over your left shoulder into the devil's eyes.

          15 Replies
          1. re: smartie

            Is that where that came from? I thought it was just for luck. Didn't know it would get rid of the devil. LOL!

            I remember when I was a child that you would twist the stem of your apple while reciting the ABC's. Whatever letter the stem came off at was supposed to be the first letter of your "true loves" name.

            1. re: danhole

              It is amazing that anyone named William ever got married. I never got very far into the alphabet with stem twisting.

              1. re: calliope_nh

                I would try to rig it when I had a crush whose name was towards the end of the alphabet. Twist slowly, recite quickly...then again, I'm single so what do I know?!

                1. re: meatn3

                  I can't believe no o e mentioned the same "game" but with the soda can tabs! This was easier to farther on the alphabet but there was a lot of rigging as well. I wanted "a" so I would be very careful until I got back around to the beginning.

                  1. re: melpy

                    I'm older than you -- we had pull-tabs, but we saved them to string them together to make things.

              2. re: danhole

                Probably especially useful, if the "devil" is seated in the booth behind you - where you throw the salt?


                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  doesn't matter so long as it's thrown over the left shoulder. so it lands in the hair of the person behind you, now they have bad luck, not you.

              3. re: smartie

                other salt traditions: never pass the salt shaker at the table without the pepper shaker

                it's also considered extremely bad luck for a household to entirely run out of salt-- many older people used to/still keep an unopened box/container of salt hidden somewhere in the house to avoid this!

                1. re: soupkitten

                  My grandmother used to bring us a box of salt and some candles whenever one of us moved into a new apartment or house and would tell us to hide the salt!

                  1. re: southernitalian

                    we get salt, sugar, and a loaf of bread when we move in!

                    1. re: Emme

                      Salt, bread, and wine is what I have seen..

                  2. re: soupkitten

                    That's interesting. Korean people used to throw sea salt (with a little bit of water) at people they hated to wish them bad luck. And to get them off their property.

                    1. re: Cinemaverite1

                      On this note, my relatives believed that a ring of salt around a house could keep evil out (bad witches, as opposed to good streghe, for example)

                      1. re: pinehurst

                        Native Hawaiian culture uses salt sprinkled on the ground as a form of blessing. Probably someone else could explain the details better than I can.

                    2. re: soupkitten

                      My mom was from Ireland and we were forbidden from passing the salt shaker from hand to hand because it would bring bad news - "pass salt, pass sorrow". I believe it is an old fisherman's superstition.

                  3. chopsticks should not stand up in your rice bowl, it looks like incense sticks that are for the dead.

                    1. how about a Greek one, where the grinds(?) in the coffee are suppose to tell your fortune. After you finish the coffee you are suppose to turn the cup over and the way the grinds come out tell you if you are going to be rich or poor. Of course since mine never came out - it meant I was going to be poor, very accurately mind you.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: PaulaT

                        in turkey and yugoslavia the coffee grounds are "read" as well--very similar to reading tea leaves

                        the pudding traditions in england where trinkets and coins are baked into a pudding at holiday time and if you have a trinket in your portion it's supposed to symbolize your fortune in the coming year: wealth, marriage, baby, etc.

                        the traditions surrounding roasting chestnuts and other nuts in the fire on samhain/halloween :

                        eating greens and hoppin john in the u.s. south at new year's for luck & wealth

                        there's tons more, just can't think of them all.

                        1. re: soupkitten

                          Similar to the pudding tradition, in France, at Epiphany, a coin or a little clay figure of little baby Jesus is placed in the gateau des rois.

                      2. Cure for warts: cut a potato in half on the night of a full moon. Rub it on the wart. Dig a small hole in the back yard at night and put the potato in it. Say three Hail Marys. Never failed.

                        1. My Grandma had tons of superstitions, these are the only food related ones I can think of.
                          If you drop a dish cloth on the floor it means company is coming.
                          Leave a pan in the oven and you'll never be hungry.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: jcattles

                            You reminded me of more: drop a fork on the ground, a woman will visit soon. Drop a knife, a man will visit. There is also a superstition in a lot of cultures that says a woman shouldn't be working in the kitchen at a certain time of the month.

                          2. what about really ancient method of predicting future by "reading" bird intestines?

                            1. Cutting a cross in the top of a loaf of Irish soda bread before baking 'lets the devil out'!
                              Not looking people in the eye when you say 'cheers' means you will be unlucky in love.
                              Also my grandmother used to say that one person only should 'be mother' and pour everyone's tea. If another person poured the tea, they would have ginger twins! (Very strange one, I know.)

                              2 Replies
                              1. Clean your rice bowl otherwise your futur spouse will be pock-marked?

                                1. My favorite fortune from cookie: "can't make silk purse from sow's ear, but silk stocking certainly improves calf".

                                  1. Two things. One, snapping the turkey wish bone. Whoever gets the largest piece has good luck. Second, my Greek friend makes New Years Bread every year. Inside she places a Greek coin. Whoever gets the slice with the coin has good luck all year.

                                    1. Southern tradition: cook cabbage and black eyes peas on New Year's Day for money and good luck for the year.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: bookwormchef

                                        In Texas if you saw someone on New Year's Day they would ask you if you'd had your peas yet..(meaning black-eyed peas). I still make a point of eating them every New Year's.

                                        The East Indians seem to have a lot of food-related superstitions...in fact so many I haven't been able to figure them out. Most of them have to do with not eating certain foods with others...kind of reminds me of the Chinese yin and yang of foods. Sometimes a certain combination of vegetables sounds good to me, and my husband will nix it. "But it sounds good" is my protest. And he will reply, that its a bad combination and not to be eaten. I have never been able to get him to tell me exactly why......he just shakes his head.

                                        1. re: bookwormchef

                                          I've heard this too, but not from my family. The cabbage supposedly stands for dollars and the peas stand for change.

                                          I like black eyed peas for anytime.

                                        2. My Grandma always tried to spoon all the bubbles off the top of her cup of tea without them touching the side of the cup. If she was successful she was supposed to receive some money.

                                          1. Somehow I had missed this post:

                                            There is a little overlap, but lots of interesting related items!

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: meatn3

                                              thanks for the hand-off, meatn3 '-)

                                              btw, did your apple peel reveal the truth? i recall if you peeled it without breaking the peel that was good luck. (or did i hear that from jacques pepin?)

                                              1. re: alkapal

                                                SO #1 - no. SO #2 - seems like it so far! Guess I ate too many apples...

                                                1. re: meatn3

                                                  Well SO #2 has fallen by the wayside. Maybe I was eating crab apples by mistake?

                                            2. I did the ABC twisting the apple stem thing, the turkey wishbone, pancake days with hidden coins, as well as the salt over the shoulder which i have been known to do very inconspicuously in a restaurant.

                                              Another one is the curled chip in the bag being good luck (bite into it and make a wish).

                                              Another tradition is to place a piece of wedding cake under your pillow and you will dream of your intended that night !

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: im_nomad

                                                The dream of which you will promptly forget when you wake up with icing in your hair and your pajamas filled with itchy crumbs!

                                                1. re: hyacinthgirl

                                                  I just loved that wedding cake under the pillow tradition when I was a kid. Whenever one of our relatives in Ireland or England would get married, a little box would arrive by air mail, a week or so after the wedding, with a slice of stale wedding cake inside. It was always such a thrill for my brother and I, and my Mom would make great ceremony of cutting the slice in to little squares for us and telling us how important it was to dream good dreams of our future loves.
                                                  We wrapped our cakes in plastic before putting them under our pillows though, so the icing and crumbs were not an issue.

                                              2. I almost forgot this one..... keeping a piece of bread or something in your pocket if you go out in the woods, to ward off the fairies.

                                                1. The 3 coffee beans served with Sambuca promise health, wealth, and happiness.

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: Veggo

                                                    I've always been served the beans w/ Sambuca but never knew that!
                                                    If it comes with an guarantee I'll have to have it more often... :)

                                                    1. re: meatn3

                                                      Hasn't worked for me yet. But I'll give it another chance. And another...

                                                  2. In Dominican Republic if you have company that has overstayed their welcome, you place salt and a broom behind a door and they will soon leave.
                                                    Also we eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight on New Years to encourage good luck/health etc in each of the coming months.
                                                    Also, pregnant women should not eat soursop or they would lose the baby.
                                                    And this was is really funny....if a woman eats out of the cooking pot, there will be rain on her wedding day....the funny thing is, I got married in DR and it rained almost all day and everyone kept asking me how many times I had eaten out of the pot. I guess the fact that it was hurricane season had nothing to do with it...LOL.
                                                    I'm sure there are more, but I can't remember.

                                                    1. a few years ago, a very elderly french waitress accidently spilled a little bit of the wine she was pouring for us. She immediately put her index finger in the spilt wine and dotted all of our foreheads as well as her own and said it was good luck.

                                                      1. here are a few additional chinese ones:

                                                        eating long noodles on your birthday means you'll have a long life
                                                        eating fish at new years means you'll be prosperous in the coming year
                                                        displaying four fruits in a plate a new years is bad luck b/c the chinese word for "four" sounds sort of similar to the word for "death"

                                                        I don't know where this one's from, but it's useful if you like sweets: candy gives you a sweeter tongue. So rationally, you should curse more if you want people to give you more candy.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: cimui

                                                          Cutting your noodles with a knife or fork is also considered bad luck; you're cutting your life short!

                                                          On Chinese New Year, my wife always puts out a plate of 12 fruits, one for each sign of the Chinese zodiac.

                                                        2. Eat pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day for good luck in the coming year (Pennsylvania Dutch tradition). Of course, I say eat pork and sauerkraut because it tastes good!

                                                          1. With Summer approaching here is one you can use:

                                                            If your ear of corn has 7 or 14 rows of kernels you can make a wish while taking the first bite! Only a wish with the first bite can come true...

                                                            1. A toast with plain water in your glass is bad luck according to superstition.

                                                              I don't do it.

                                                              1. "stir with a knife, bring trouble and strife"

                                                                Bad luck to give knives as gifts in many cultures; symbolizes the severing of the relationship

                                                                Refill your salt shakers on New Year's Day - it ensures prosperity for the coming year.

                                                                slices of raw potato will cure a headache

                                                                10 Replies
                                                                1. re: sunshine842

                                                                  Regarding knives as gifts: my family's tradition has been to always include a penny when giving a knife. The recipient then returns the penny to the giver, to "buy" the knife, and negate any relationship-severing symbolism. We're not a superstitious lot for the most part, but this one hangs around. I never really thought about it before this thread post, but our family seems to love giving knives. I suppose when the family pastimes are hunting, fishing, cooking and whittling, though, it makes some sense. Or maybe we just like to exchange pennies.

                                                                  1. re: cayjohan

                                                                    My family includes a penny with the gift of a knife too. I've never come across the penny returned to "purchase". I was told that the penny cuts any bad luck.

                                                                    Somewhat off topic, but we included a penny in gifts of wallets or purses. Istr that the penny was included to encourage good fortune.

                                                                    1. re: cayjohan

                                                                      Yes, I forgot that part -- it's important to "buy" the knife from the gifter.

                                                                      This one is found in a LOT of cultures worldwide (either no knives -- or scissors -- at all, or "buying" the item)-- cultures vary widely, but this is one of the few common ones.

                                                                      1. re: cayjohan

                                                                        My family's tradition too. Olde English custom of giving 'silver' when giving a knife. My mom gave me a gorgeous bread knife for xmas and pressed a shiny quarter in my hand at the same time. I'd like to know if I'm supposed to give it back to her based on your understanding of the ritual.

                                                                        1. re: yumyum

                                                                          In my family, the recipient always gives the coin back to properly "buy" the knife and avoid all the ill-gotten-knife bad luck, which not only means endangerment of the relationship to the giver, but also increases the likelihood of the knife "biting" the recipient and repeatedly going back for more blood until the debt was rectified. A properly "purchased" gift knife, however was a different matter: once it "bit" its owner and tasted blood, it was bound to the owner forever, and likelier to stay sharper and be loyal. Our family's superstitions likely trickled down from our Nordic roots; the Finns seem to have a lot of knife lore. The old guard of the family are now all passed on, so I can't trace our own custom more, but I do continue it when I gift knives to my grown children - sort of a fun little tradition.

                                                                      2. re: sunshine842

                                                                        In at least some parts of the Philipines a pregnant woman must sleep with a knife under the mattress to insure a successful delivery of the child.

                                                                        1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                                          knives in particular seem to be tied to loads of superstition

                                                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                                                            not many weapons are kitchen utensils, or is it that not many kitchen utensils are weapons?

                                                                          2. re: KaimukiMan

                                                                            With my family, the variation was that a knife under the bed of a woman in labor would cut the pain in half.

                                                                            1. re: cayjohan

                                                                              If any part of it makes sense that would, but in my friend's case the grandma to be was adamant that the knife be placed there as soon as they knew she was pregnant.

                                                                              In the back of my mind I'm thinking that the custom was started by a woman who already had 4 or 5 children and wanted to have the knife handy when she told her husband to not even think about touching her.

                                                                        2. ok, who remembers the tv show "perfect strangers" and the bibbi-babka episode where, if the song and its accompanying steps aren't performed according to tradition, the babkas will explode?


                                                                          1. Easter dinner finds Lithuanians sitting around the dining table with an Easter Egg in hand. One person takes his/her egg and strikes it against the egg of the person next to them. The person whose egg doesn't crack continues to the next person, and so on. Superstition believes that the person whose egg does not crack will live a long life.

                                                                            1. A tea stem floating vertically in your green tea is an auspicious sign.

                                                                              Eating first crops will extend your life by 75 days (new crop teas, skipjack in the summer, new potatoes...)

                                                                              1. Well, in my family, there were few food superstitions, but most came about for New Year's dinner - like sanitized dimes in the black-eyed peas, etc. That was to bring wealth in the New Year. Never worked for me, but maybe I did not "believe" enough?


                                                                                1 Reply
                                                                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                                                  something must have worked for you, Bill -- you drink wine that costs more than my rent.

                                                                                2. Whenever we had ate a turkey or chicken with a wishbone, we would let it (the wishbone) dry out for a few days... then, one person would grab one side and a second person would grab the other to snap it, whoever gets the largest piece, their wish would come true. I always thought that if they both had the SAME wish it must then come true. (so my wish was always that they got their wish);)

                                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                                  1. re: Selanny

                                                                                    wanna have a little fun?

                                                                                    Get your hands on a wishbone a few days early -- put it into a container and cover it with white vinegar (put the lid on the keep the vinegar from evaporating)

                                                                                    After three days, the vinegar will have destroyed the calcium in the bone, leaving you with a bendy, springy thing that looks like a wishbone, but flexes instead of breaking.

                                                                                  2. My grandparents, mum and uncles love to cook. They've got this superstition where you cannot say anything negative in the kitchen, be it about someone else, yourself, about the food etc while it is cooking or it will not turn out well (my heritage is Chinese, by the way). When my grandmother makes steamed cakes (I shall add in here that she uses Sprite or 7-up as a leavening and sweetening agent, and it works), she specifically told me NOT to say ANYTHING. Anyway, that one time I did and some of the steamed cakes didn't turn out very pretty and she said it's because I said something.

                                                                                    When my family set up a pastry business, my uncle reminded me to keep my speech and thoughts clean while the cakes/pastries are baking. Well, sometimes I didn't... though I doubt I could attribute that to some of the baked goodies for being less than perfect.

                                                                                    My sister recently told me an experiment about some guy who bought 3 packs of bean curd dessert and gave each pack different verbal treatment. (A) got positive remarks, (B) got negative, and (C) got a running down. The results are thus: (A) is more or less fine after a few days, (B) is a bad state and (C) has gone rotten. I don't know who's crazy enough to talk to bean curd, but — anyone care to try talking to food to see if it has an effect?

                                                                                    4 Replies
                                                                                    1. re: jacqve

                                                                                      I thought of your post earlier when I caught the end of Pepin’s show. He said that unhappy cooks don’t make good food, and if you are in a bad mood, get takeout: instead. Apparently the French have the same take on mood and food:)

                                                                                      1. re: EM23

                                                                                        Go read "Like Water For Chocolate" -- seems to be a relatively universal belief.

                                                                                        1. re: sunshine842

                                                                                          Or "The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake"

                                                                                        2. re: EM23

                                                                                          Seriously? Honestly I'm not the superstitious sort but I -DO- think our moods have an effect on our cooking! Not really surprised that it's a universal belief but I was wondering if other foodies/cooks kept in mind the notion of moods affecting cooking. Thanks for the titles — that's two new non-recipe books about food for us to read :)

                                                                                      2. In Southern Italy, a woman cannot help puree and bottle tomatoes for sauce if she's on her cycle. They feel it would ruin the sauce.

                                                                                        1. I can't recall the associated phrase/background, but many times I would try to order something off the menu in China, the waitstaff or chef would chide me and mention that those two things, whatever they were, just didn't go together. One instance might've been eggplant and cauliflower or cauliflower and green peppers. I told them I didn't care because whatever they made would be good, regardless of the effect on my qi.

                                                                                          One hotel in Shenzhen had a book showing examples of "incorrect" food pairings, but I'll be danged if I can locate the photo.

                                                                                          1. Dr. Emoto did a study on water and if you wrote the words 'love' on the water bottle, the molecular componets changed.

                                                                                            The movie, What the bleep do we know, is great insight on Quantum Physics.


                                                                                            1. Hyancithgirl, are we the only people in the world who read "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake"? Loved that book.

                                                                                              We were told never to eat fish and have milk to drink. Deadly combination!! Also, when giving a wallet or purse to ALWAYS include a bill or a coin. Good luck for both giver and receiver. The paying for the knife thing was also in my east TX family. Still do it to this day.