Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year Food Lore

Most likely, if you've been reading my blog posts and checking out the Folkheart Press website, you know that folklore revolves around important aspects of life. This includes life cycles like birth, marriage, retirement and death AND significant acts of daily living.

Well, can you think of anything more significant than food? Okay, there's shelter, clothing, etc. But that's usually not what most people are interested in. Of course, some people are riveted to architecture and contemporary or folk art fashion trends, but, really, who doesn't have at least some interest in the food they eat?

Food is a pretty basic fact of life that has taken on many different tones around the world. What is traditional in one culture may be taboo in another. For example: pork is a pretty common ingredient in Asian meat dishes... in kosher households its forbidden.

Every culture has rules, legends, myths and tales about what it consumes and how those food items are prepared. Some dishes are medicinal, others are designed to attract wealth and/or fertility, while others are imbued with all of the above and then some.

In researching food lore associated with the New Year, I came upon these golden kernels (no pun intended) of food lore. Enjoy then and if you have some to add to the list, let me know.

• Italian fried pastry ensures a sweet year.

• Pennsylvania “Dutch” (German) tradition suggest that together pork and sauerkraut bring good luck.

• Polish fans of pickled herring say that the first bite of herring in the new year bring prosperity.

• China: Be sure to leave some sticky sweet foods for the Kitchen God who makes household reports to the deities.

Happy Eating!

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Smith Family Folktale About Santa Claus

Santa Claus Smith Hills – A Family Folktale
This is a wonderful example of a group folktale that allows for each contributor to share his or her personal experience of the same event.

My dear friend Michael (Mike) Hills, a top notch balladeer, recently died. In the wake of his death there are many wonderful memories of him. There is one in particular that stands out as special to me and to his five siblings. It is of Michael as Santa Claus, that festive Christmas folk hero who brings joy (and presents) to children.

To preserve this benevolent holiday spirit motif as it appeared in my friend's life, I asked his brothers and sisters, Greg Smith, Patricia Stelt, Tim Smith, Christine Pedeaux and Tom Smith to share what they remembered about the years that Michael, their oldest brother, played Santa Claus.

The making of this group folktale wove together their individual experiences of the family Christmas ritual that Michael began when he was 14 (1962).

The tradition which began in Fullerton, California started when Michael’s parents asked Michael to dress up as Santa for the younger children. “They also asked me to help,” recalled brother Greg who was only two years younger than Michael.

“Every Christmas Eve I would help Mike into his red velvet Santa suit and I would guard our bedroom door so that none of the younger ones would come into our bedroom." He added that Michael made a great Santa. Large and husky for his age, his build was perfect for the job. “He wasn’t fat,” said Greg who described himself as ‘too skinny’ for such a task.

Greg continues: “I felt privileged to help him because: 1) I always enjoyed a fun adventure 2) Mike made a GREAT Santa ... mom & dad got him a GREAT-looking outfit 3) I enjoyed seeing the reactions of my little brothers and sisters.”

Michael, who later in life became an actor at places like Knotts Berry Farm, was so good in the role that a couple neighbors sometimes asked him to be Santa at their nearby homes, too, since he was already dressed up. Michael's alibi to his brothers and sisters was that he went to visit the neighbors and "just missed" Santa's early visit which was touted as a pre-visit just to say hi to the siblings while they were still awake. Before and after "Santa's" visit, he would throw some large rocks up onto the roof to sound like reindeer.

His sister Patricia (Patti) was also in on the secret. At 8 she knew what was going on and relished the joy Michael brought to them all. “Tim, Tom and Christine had no clue that Santa could possibly be anyone other than Santa. Especially because he was the same size, had a wonderful deep "Ho Ho Ho" and had a sack thrown over his back of gifts!"

The children gave him Christmas cookies for a snack, and he took turns sitting each of them on his knee, asking them what they wanted for Christmas, and always gave them a gift from his sack of toys.

Christine noted that she “loved the work gloves” he wore as Santa. “I do remember him telling us that he had to go over to the Scotts’ home for a while and Santa always came when Mike was gone.” Christine’s memory includes the jingling of bells outside the house just before he came in.

In time his brother Tim noticed that Santa Claus’s legs were hairy, much like Michael’s. The youngest child, Tom became suspicious of Santa Claus’ visits when he jumped onto Santa's knee and Santa said "Ouch, could you sit on the other knee?" At the time Tom made a connection between Santa's sore knee and the knee Michael had injured in an accident.

Patricia said that one year Michael “really blew his cover” with Tom. “Mike had an affectionate name for Tom: ‘Monkey’ and he said to Tom, “OK, Monkey, climb on up here....its your turn!"

Patricia remembered that Michael, a consummate musician even at that age ALWAYS gave the gift of music. "He pulled his gifts out of his "Turntable" labeled bag." Turntable was the downtown record shop.

She wondered why it took the younger ones so long to discover who Santa was.

Maybe they didn’t care. As Patricia herself explained, “It was an amazing, sweet thing for Mike to do each year, and he was a GREAT Santa Claus. His deep voice would resound through the neighborhood, and he was very convincing! Just one example of how he loved, even at a young age, to bring joy to others.”

By the way, until his death, the gift of music was one of Michael's legacies. My daughter Kiana, his god daughter, received countless CDs and inherited his 12 string Martin guitar and his faithful auto harp. But this is the material of another folktale!

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Modern Day Sports Hero: St. John of the Midfield

Folk heroes and heroines are people who, in every day life, do the extraordinary to overcome adversity. We preserve their memories because they represent character traits and skills that we hold dear.

Folk heroes come in many shapes and sizes. In St. John of Midfield we are introduced to a sports folk hero. In today's world, sports figures loom large on the horizon but not all of them fall into the category of folk hero. Only those who exhibit talent, skills, leadership and sportsmanship even in the most difficult of times make the grade.

I recently asked author Garasamo Maccagnone to talk about the hero of St. John of the Midfield. But before the Q&A, let me give you a brief synopsis of the story:

World-class soccer star Bobo Stoikov makes an escape from communist Bulgaria and finds his way to America. Landing a job as a youth soccer coach, Bobo builds a reputation for himself as a successful, yet unorthodox, coach who propels his team to the championship title. But things go far beyond the soccer field when arch rival Sonny Christopher seeks to destroy Bobo's reputation, along with that of his best player, Luca, and the player's father, Mario. Before he realizes how serious the situation is, Bobo finds himself in sudden death and soon realizes there is more at stake than just a soccer game.

Folkheart Press
: Bobo is a contemporary folk hero who faces contemporary adversities. Why did you choose the ‘sports hero’ motif?

Garasamo: The world outside of America is in love with the game of soccer. Though Americans are not quite so enthusiastic about the sport, many Americans are sport junkies. With networks dedicated to sports 24 hours a day, the sports hero holds an exalted place in the culture.

Folkheart Press
: Folk heroes (and folk villains) often represent the beliefs and values of their cultures/societies. How did you determine which beliefs and values your characters would address?

: Even if you strip out religion, our culture admires individuals who give of themselves without asking a lot in return. Be it a teacher, fireman, coach, or a counselor, we applaud those who selflessly take care of others. Honing in on that discovery, it wasn't difficult for me to create an appealing character who represented the best of our ways.

Folkheart Press
: Would you describe the novel’s story line as mythical (involving archetypal and/or supra natural characters and elements) or folkloric (everyday, common place characters and themes)?

: Bobo uses St. John as an apostolic metaphor when explaining what he saw in his young student. Of course, it's really himself that he sees in Luca. As Bobo is good, he sees the good in Luca, which he believes is the main attribute to becoming a great interior mid-fielder. Since Bobo believes St. John to be the Saint most like Jesus, he impresses on Luca to aspire to be like St. John, St. John of the Midfield.

Folkheart Press
: What have you learned from your characters?

Garasamo: That evil lurks near those with the purest of intentions. With Mario, though he loathes his father's criminal empire, and does everything in his power to keep his family away from it, in the end, he has no choice but to become just like his father. With his son in danger, Mario reacts as his father would by giving a fateful nod that leads to a tragic ending.

Folkheart Press: Writers are folk heroes, too. What challenges have you overcome and which have made you stronger?

: I'm an in-your-face type of Catholic writer who catches flak from Evangelists to Atheists. And of course, most uncomfortable with my stories, are the Catholics themselves, who often don't like to be reminded of their hypocrisy.

The author is currently working on his next book, The Fish and the Fox. Other written works by Garasamo include, The Affliction of Dreams, a collection of short stories and poetry, The Suburban Dragon, a children's book, and For the Love of St. Nick, an illustrated short story about two boys who seek the help of St. Nick after the tragic loss of their mother.

Be sure to check out tomorrow's post in this Writers In The Sky virtual blog tour by visitng Dallas Woodburn of Dallas hosts an article about using YouTube for marketing promotions and the book trailer for St. John of the Midfield. Follow this blogger on Twitter: @DallasWoodburn.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quilts: Perfect Winter Folk Art

American folk art is all about making beautiful the functional, everyday, necessary items of life. What could be more useful than a quilt?

Quilts, like blankets, are for bedding. However, unlike blankets, they are often made of colorful, decorative designs that make incredible bed coverings and can also be made to be displayed on a wall as a work of art.

They are also artful historical records of family and community. So true to the country they are made it, they cross over class, age, and ethnicity. They are tangible, tactile records of life in America that tell a story that reflects the personality and passion of its maker, the quilter.

Throughout history there have been many types of quilts around the world.

For example:
== In the Italian Renaissance, quilting was very common
== A green silk quilt decorated with metal threads,roses and pomegranates was made for King Henry VIII's wedding to Catherine of Aragon.
== Bangladesh quilts were made of worn out saris (clothes).

In America, some of the more popular quilting traditions include the Amish which is basically solid in color so as not to be "too worldly" and the Log Cabin, a composition of blocks of fabric.

Celebration of this centuries' old folk art form is currently underway at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Now through October 2011, the museum will exhibit, Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum. This well-thought out display highlights a range of textile masterpieces, some of which have rarely been seen before.

And with Winter in full swing, but better time than now to enjoy this hearty folk art form?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

If I Could Keep You Little

Family relationships are among the topics most explored in folktales. Grandparents, god parents, special aunts, prized cousins, parents, sons and daughters and the like comprise basic family units all over the world. Regardless of the society there are folktales about families coming together and families falling apart. That’s because families are an important part of everyone’s life cycles.

Best-selling Author and Artist Marianne Richmond explores the poignancy of parenthood in her newest book "If I Could Keep You Little…” ($15.99, Sourcebooks, Nov. 2010). Here she captures in very few words and with great artistic talent the joyful moments of early child-parent/caretaker relations and how those relations change.

As a chronicle for commonplace events, such as cutting up your child’s bread into fun shapes and tossing your child in the air, her work highlights the everyday moments that are soon missed by parents and caretakers when the child becomes too old for such interactions. And yet, those experiences are replaced with a new set of moments that are as precious.

Richmond reveals the upcoming moments with a sense of beauty and grace for she, as folk teller, reminds adults that they cannot keep a child young forever. To do so, the picture book advises, is to hinder the child’s ability to experience what the rest of life has to offer.

For example: “If I could keep you little, I’d keep you close to me. But then I’d miss you growing into who you’re meant to be!”

The book is gentle in its approach and yet very powerful. As a folktale it teaches a very important lesson: treasure the memories but remember to let go when the time comes (because that opens the door for new memories). And it does!

It also speaks to children, consoling them in a way that is tender. The author shows them how helpful it is for parents to pull back and get out of the way in order to make room for them to grow.

As the mother of a 16 year old vivacious daughter I relished the memories this book evoked and I appreciated the reminder that children do grow into wonderful people, much like caterpillars becomes butterflies.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Food Lore: What's In A Walnut?

Walnuts, according to Roman food lore, were the food of the gods. Lowly plebians (humans) ate acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts and other types of lesser nuts.

The Roman word for walnut nux Gallica is linguistically traced to the Proto-Indo European word dyew-g╩Ělandi- "Jove's acorn". Metaphorically, it was a nut fit for a god.

Roman wedding guests were hailed by walnuts, compliments of the groom, to bring good health, to ward off disease, and increase fertility. Young men who thought the walnut enhanced fertility eagerly scrambled for the tossed jewels.

Ironically in Romania, a bride would place one roasted walnut in her bodice for every year she wished to remain childless.

In the Middle Ages, Europeans believed walnuts would ward off fevers, witchcraft, epileptic fits, the evil eye, and even lightning. The Chinese believe crickets to be a creature of good omen, and would often carry musically-trained crickets in walnut shells covered with intricately-carved patterns.

Although it is difficult to trace the native home of the walnut tree, today there are 21 species of walnut. The Romans thought it originated in Persia. Early cultivation spanned from southeastern Europe to Asia Minor to the Himalayas. Greek usage of walnut oil dates back to the fourth century B.C., nearly a century before the Romans.

Franciscan priests brought the walnut to California in the latter part of the 18th century. The oil of the nut has been used for centuries in the preparation of fine paints for artists. And the wood of the tree is a valued source of lumber for floors and furniture.

Here are some fun recipes and uses of walnut:

Maple Walnut Pie

Walnut Liquer
Quick Walnut Bread