Etiquette & superstition: tomatoes

My old pal Millicent Fenwick says in my edition of Vogue’s Book of Etiquette that “toe-mah-to” is the preferred pronunciation of everyone’s favorite nightshade. Not here in Los Angle-ease it isn’t, Millie. This might be the first time we’ve ever disagreed.

ETIQUETTE: You probably figured this one out the hard way when you were a little kid, but if you didn’t, you should know that the best way to eat a cherry tomato is to put the whole thing in your mouth at one time. If it’s too big, you may cut it, but you are going to need a knife and fork to do so. This is not being overly fussy; attempting to cut a cherry tomato with the side of your fork is not going to end well for you or your dining companions. Pierce the tomato delicately with the tines of your fork to stabilize it, and then slice it in two slowly and attentively.

Raw tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator, and should be served room temperature rather than chilled for best flavor. Of course, all of this is a bit of a moot point if you are serving firm, store-bought tomatoes that have been ripened with ethylene gas. Nothing will help those sad fellows flavor-wise. Hey, but they look kind of pretty, eh?

SUPERSTITION: That old superstition about tomatoes being poisonous? Oh, that’s ridiculous. And nobody ever really thought that, anyway. They won’t kill you and they won’t turn you into a werewolf either. Superstitious posh. Tomatoes are absolutely fine to eat, really.

Just remember not to eat one fresh off the vine if you want to avoid brain fever. Also, peel it unless you want to give yourself The Cancer, and oh brother, don’t drink tomato juice unless you want to aggravate that high blood pressure of yours. Otherwise, go for it. Oh yeah. Don’t eat the seeds either, unless you’ve already had your appendix taken out. Better to put the tomato seeds in a pouch and wear them around your neck; it’s a sure-fire way to be popular with the boys.

Photo of Chole post-skunking by Brian Boucheron via Flickr; you really should check out the whole album here

Etiquette & superstition: bread crust

Today’s post was inspired by Atlas Obscura’s recent compilation of mom lies they received from readers in honor of Mother’s Day. One of the lies someone sent in was about how their mom said bread crust was full of vitamins, and it made me think about the news story a few years ago about scientists finding a cancer-fighting antioxidant called pronyl-lysine in bread crust and how happy that lying mother must have been to have her lie retconned like that. Of course, the same chemical reaction that produces pronyl-lysine in bread crust also creates acrylamide, which is a carcinogen. So it’s a bit of a wash, Lying Mom. You’re going to have to try better than that to get me to eat my bread crusts.

ETIQUETTE: Sandwiches with the crusts cut off are not the preferred and “most proper” way to serve sandwiches unless you are talking about little finger sandwiches you serve at a daytime party or tea. A normal sandwich served as a meal for an adult should have its bread crusts intact. Anything else is overly precious and fussy, which I believe we have previously noted is the opposite of true etiquette.

Also contrary to what you may have been told, you may in fact use your bread crust to sop up a particularly nice bit of sauce on your plate, provided you are not in a formal setting and you do the sopping with a modicum of restraint. Take a bite-sized bit of bread/crust, drop it on the plate, and direct it with your fork into the sauce. Fork that bread bit up into your mouth and be happy.

One last tip for time travelers only: If you find yourself in the early to mid-19th century being served a plate of fish, go ahead and use your bread crust in lieu of a knife as a sort of aid to your fork. The steel knives they have right now carry a metallic taste that overpowers the fish, and it’s going to be a few years yet before they start making fish utensils out of silver.

SUPERSTITION: Bread crusts! They make your hair curly. They help you learn how to whistle. They make your teeth whiter. They make your boobs grow, and they attract kisses. Eat your bread crusts, kids!

Photo by anyjazz65 on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: leftovers

If you are an American of a certain age and from a certain region, you may recall restaurant takeout bags referred to as “doggie bags.” A current Google image search, however, will reveal that most items these days referred to as doggie bags either carry doggies or something made by doggies. This is one more reason you should keep up with your vernacular terms.

ETIQUETTE: Long ago in the US, it was considered gauche for a diner in a restaurant to ask for their uneaten food to be wrapped up so they could finish it later at home. Sometime around the early to mid-20th century, a workaround was devised in the form of “I’m quite finished, thank you, but if it’s all right I’d like to take the rest of this steak home for my pet to consume,” and the “doggie bag” was born.

This desire to not seem overly greedy has now turned around completely, and in the States it is completely normal to ask for one’s uneaten food to be wrapped up for later consumption; the “this isn’t for me; it’s for my dog” cover story is considered to be a bit absurd, and pretty much nobody calls it a doggie bag anymore. You can go to some rather well-respected dining establishments and they will not bat an eyelash if you ask them to box up the uneaten portion of your meal. A really fun place may even give you your food wrapped in a foil swan.

However, this way of thinking is not very common in the rest of the world. In Canada, go for it. In the UK and Vienna and South Africa, it seems to be fine in places that offer takeaway food. But in Australia, depending on what state you’re in, it’s either a normal practice or illegal. In most of Europe and in Japan, you are going to get a look from the waitperson at the very least, you will embarrass your dining companions, and the restaurant will probably not accommodate your request. Eat up at the table, doggie.

SUPERSTITION: In Spain, if it’s Ash Wednesday and you’re at a feast you can ask someone to box up your food. They’ll be happy to do it, but you’re going to have to carry it in a procession and then bury it with a whole lot of fanfare and I’m not sure that’s what you intended when you asked them to box your food.

But Ash Wednesday was a while ago. Let’s talk about food from this week. I sure hope you didn’t bring home any leftovers from your Walpurgisnacht feast. If you did, you should throw them out because they aren’t really leftovers anymore. Some fairies came and ate the leftovers and made some fake food out of sod and left that in place of the leftovers. I’m serious. That’s what they do. Jerks.

Photo (greaseproof!) by julia k via Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: pearls

When I was in high school in the ’80s I asked my dad if I could wear his old Air Force overcoat, and he said, “Sure.” I took a string of fake pearls and looped it around the epaulet strap in place of decorative braid, and I wore the hell out of that coat for a while. My dad was much slower with his “sure”s after that.

ETIQUETTE: Geez. You look up “pearl etiquette” on the internet, and you have people asking, “Can I wear pearls after 5?” “Can I wear pearls before 5?” “Can I wear pearls at work?” “Can young people wear pearls?” What is with all the pearl anxiety? I have a feeling someone’s parents or significant other didn’t want to or couldn’t buy pearls for a young lady who wanted them, made up some story about how they were inappropriate for the young lady, and then all the other parents or significant others saw how well this worked and they ran with the concept, tailored for their own situations.

Look. You can wear pearls at any time of day, at any time of your life, and for any occasion. Even the fuddiest duddiest etiquette book says you can even wear them for funerals. They are the most versatile, non-flashy, elegant balls of irritant in the world. If someone gives you pearls, wear them happily and often. And don’t rub them across your teeth to see if they are real… at least not in front of anyone.

SUPERSTITION: Be careful with pearls. It’s unlucky to get pearls as a gift unless you are a baby. If you wear pearls and they turn white, everybody will know you are evil. If you wear pearls on your wedding day, your marriage will be full of tears. But on the other hand, a pearl under a pillow will help a couple conceive a child. Pearls protect the wearer against fire and shark attacks, and powder made of burnt pearl will cure insanity, jaundice, and snake bites.

Photo by antinea…hereandzere on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: hiccups

Benny had a health scare recently, namely a 24-hour bout of singultus. Also known as yox, hickot, hickock, hitchcock, and hiccough. He has since recovered, despite his refusal to drink water upside-down, which is a tried and trusted cure in my family. I think he just doesn’t know how to drink water upside-down and he’s embarrassed to admit it.

ETIQUETTE: As far as I have been able to determine, there is no culture that has any sort of reflexive “bless you” or similar response to the hiccups, but here in the West there does seem to be an automatic response of “Oh hey! You know what cures hiccups?” One of the hardest things to do if somebody around you has the hiccups is to refrain from offering unsolicited advice about a tried and trusted cure. But refrain you must, and ignore the hiccups as best you can.

If you have the hiccups and you don’t have a tried and trusted cure for them, it is recommended that you leave the room and get yourself a little privacy for a few minutes until the bout (hopefully) takes its course. You will be helping the person who so desperately wants to give you their tried and trusted cure and knows they shouldn’t, and you will be helping yourself, because you will eventually want to sock the person who won’t take no for an answer about their cure, and if you’re in a public place you’re likely to get in trouble for being publicly intoxicated if you’re hiccuping and throwing punches and all.

SUPERSTITION: Oh hey! You know what cures hiccups? Holding your left thumb with your right hand. No, wait. Hold your chin with your right hand while somebody sings a church hymn. No? Think about where you put that horseshoe that you found. You don’t have to get it or anything, just think about where you put it. Wait, wait. Tie a key to a piece of red string, tie it around your neck, and throw the key over your shoulder. Okay, but hold on. This one really works. Spit in your right hand, make a cross on the toe of your left shoe three times, and then say the Lord’s Prayer. Backwards. Tried and trusted.

Photo by Smokey Combs on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: hoarding fire

I’ve written about the etiquette & superstition surrounding a couple of fire topics before, but it’s a big topic. Today let’s talk about the good kind of fire. It’s kind of difficult to remember when many of my fellow Angelenos are facing work commutes that look straight from Dante’s Inferno, but sometimes we want fire. Sometimes we want fire so much we don’t want to share it.

ETIQUETTE: If you find yourself in a group of people warming themselves around a campfire or near a lit fireplace, do not get in between another person and the fire. If you came to the fire late and are cold, and there is absolutely no way to get a little of that hot hot fire on you without blocking someone else, ask your companions to widen the circle.

SUPERSTITION: If you have a fire burning in your hearth, don’t let anyone take any of it (not even a bit of coal or a candle lit from it) out of the house, particularly on Christmas, New Year’s Day or May Day. If you do, your children will get sick, your livestock will die, and whoever took that bit of fire will come back in the summer and take all your butter.

Fire Good poster by Amy Martin; available here from the Echo Park Time Travel Mart

Etiquette & superstition: eclipses, part two

It’s been a while since we talked about eclipses here, and I know I didn’t cover everything then. If I don’t get everything in this time, maybe I’ll try again in 2024.

ETIQUETTE: There are two things that most people are going to want to experience during a solar eclipse – darkness and an unimpeded view of the sky. So, if you are going to be around other people and happen to be in the path of totality,

During the total eclipse phase (a maximum of 2:40 at its area of longest duration this time around), be particularly careful about the following:

  • don’t take flash photos
  • don’t take selfies with your damn screen all lit up
  • don’t text (seriously, if you can’t keep yourself from texting for less than three minutes, I don’t even know what to tell you)

SUPERSTITION: Remember last time when we warned you about how you had to make a lot of racket to scare the giant sky dragon and make him barf up the sun? Turns out that’s not true. During an eclipse, what actually happens is this demon who got his head chopped off after the sun and moon ratted him out to Vishnu for stealing some immortality juice goes and eats the sun, but it’s okay because he’s only a head, so after he swallows the sun it just falls out of his neck hole and everything’s fine after a few minutes.

So relax and don’t worry about the eclipse, unless you’re a pregnant lady who wants to give birth to a healthy child. Aside from the cleft palate danger I mentioned in the previous post, a pregnant woman who goes out into the eclipse just might turn her unborn child into a mouse fetus.

Photo (cropped) of Sun Days Motel sign by Sam Howzit via Flickr


Etiquette & superstition: letters to pests

Pest: an annoying or troublesome person, animal, or thing; nuisance. Being a pest does not require intention or desire to be a pest. You may be a pest and not even know it. Wouldn’t you rather someone told you?

ETIQUETTE: If you are in a work situation or living environment and you do not know who is stealing everyone’s lunch or leaving junk mail on the lobby floor, it is perfectly fine to post a directly-worded but calm note at the area of offense and not sign your name to it. It’s more of a sign than a note in this case. If you know who the offender is, however, it’s a completely different matter.

If you don’t feel comfortable confronting the offender and their offense is something that is actually interfering with your ability to work or to live comfortably, direct communication is preferred but if you must, find an intermediary. A boss is the appropriate person to talk to if a co-worker’s habits are harassing, unprofessional or intrusive, and an apartment manager is the appropriate person to talk to if a fellow tenant has ignored your previous requests to stop rollerskating in the hallway at 3 a.m. or is leaving his discarded shotgun shells on the floor of the elevator.

A very important point to bring up on this topic, courtesy of Charles Purdy in his quite enjoyable book Urban Etiquette: “… anonymous notes are at best cowardly and at worst threatening: If you can’t attach your name to it, perhaps it shouldn’t be said at all. An unsigned note addressed to a specific person is appropriate only for secret admirers, credit card companies, and kidnappers demanding ransom.”

SUPERSTITION: If you have a rat problem, you should leave a note for the rats. The ancient Greeks recommend a more threatening tone (“… if I ever catch you here again by the Mother of God I will rend you in seven pieces”) than do the countryfolk of the Ardennes or England (more of a “my neighbor has a lot more grain than I do” tack), but the people of New England are particularly New England-y about it. “The letter should indicate precisely the habitation to which they are assigned, and the road to be taken, and should contain such representations of the advantages of the change as may be supposed to affect the intelligence of the animal in question. A sample:

The Greeks say the note should be placed on a rock writing-side up, the Scots think it should be nailed to the wall or placed under the door one expects the rats to exit by, and the Yanks feel it should be folded up neatly and put into the rats’ hole. The Welsh say you should not bother with a request to vacate but instead write out some sort of mysterious “r.a.t.s. a.t.s.r.” acrostic puzzle and shove it into the King Rat’s mouth. I’m not so sure about that last one.

Photo via Boston Public Library feed on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: Midsummer

Phew. That was a thing. Was the summer solstice yesterday, or the day before? The argument got so heated that I decided not to touch it in favor of Midsummer. Midsummer is Saturday, and Midsummer’s Eve is Friday. Wanna fight about it?

ETIQUETTE: If you’re going to have a Midsummer party, you need to have a few things on the menu. You can mess around with a few options, but don’t mess around with the basics. You need to serve new potatoes, pickled herring, and the season’s first strawberries. Beer and schnapps to drink. Seriously. Don’t mess around.

SUPERSTITION: Oh geez. Midsummer. Such a busy time. On Midsummer’s Eve:

  • Pick a rose, and it will stay fresh until Christmas
  • Pick seven different kinds of flowers and put them under your pillow, and you’ll dream of your future mate
  • Light a bonfire on Midsummer’s Eve so the apple crop won’t spoil
  • Stuff a wheel with straw, light it on fire, and roll it down the hill. If the wheel stays lit all the way down, you’ll have a good harvest this year
  • Pen up the cattle and walk around the pen three times while carrying a torch if you want to avoid them getting diseased or visited by evil forces
  • Hope it doesn’t rain because if it does, your filberts are going to be spoiled.
Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Edwin Landseer

Etiquette & superstition: bananas

Don’t give me tomatoes, can’t stand ice cream cones. I like bananas because they have no bones.

ETIQUETTE: Usually I respect my etiquette elders, but I recently came across a “rule” on Etiquette Scholar that I cannot agree with – namely, that at a formal meal you should eat a banana with a fork. No. No, and let’s just take this apart right now. Primarily, this supposed rule breaks one of the basic tenets of modern etiquette: don’t be overly precious or fussy. Putting on airs is the opposite of etiquette.

Secondarily, you are not going to be served a whole, uncut raw banana at a formal meal. (I know ES is talking about a whole, uncut raw banana because they also recommend that you place the peel on the side of your plate.) For the sake of argument, however, let’s suppose that someone is hatching up a new cuisine right now that involves very fancy raw banana eating. How do you handle it? I say you partially peel the fruit starting from the stem end (don’t tell me I’m doing it wrong; there’s a reason for this), keeping the banana in your hand, and break a piece off for eating with your other hand. Don’t just peel the fruit and take a bite from the entire banana as a monkey would. That’s just asking to be snickered at.

SUPERSTITION: If you bring a banana on a boat, it’s bad luck and at the very least nobody on the boat will catch any fish. Some fishing boat captains will go so far as to ban Banana Boat sunscreen, Banana Republic clothing and even Fruit of the Loom underwear (the label of which doesn’t happen to have a banana, but whatever). If you happen to find yourself on a fishing boat with any of the aforementioned banana items, and you want to actually catch a fish, toss them overboard and try praying to the Hindu crocodile god Kompira/Konpira:

Oh great Konpira
please, hear my plea
I am sorry for my mistake
A banana I brought to sea

it was an honest gesture
a noble means of nutrition
I had no ill intent
I brought fruit of my own volition

Please forgive my idiocy
I meant my friends no harm
We just want to go fishing
and go home with a sore arm

We beg of you to release the curse
upon which I have brought
In your honor I consume these bananas
a sacrifice all for nought

Photo by Julian Burgess on Flickr
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