Happy Birthday to You! And other Lucky Charms…

We don’t often think of food’s symbolic powers, but they’re still there all the time and every day. Whether it’s the extra portion of care you put into preparing a dish for someone you love, or the warm comfort of a simple meal that takes you back to your childhood, there is often a silent meaning in every bite we eat. Taken a step further, food can be linked not just to our innermost feelings and experiences, but also to a more communal, external sense of history and culture. This doesn’t just mean the shared recipes of a given place and time, but also the funny little things we do that turn food into a bridge between us and another invisible world: the ways we use food for luck or grace. And even the most secular souls among us are not immune to it.

In the Western world, the most overt example of this is the Eucharist—whose origins can be traced back to the Jewish tradition of breaking and blessing bread—where Catholics partake of wine and bread in order to to remember Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and to ask forgiveness for their sins. According to the principles of transubstantiation, followers are literally consuming the body and blood of Christ when they eat the bread and drink the wine which, frankly, sounds a little barbaric. But it’s hard to imagine a more profound and intimate way of connecting with your god than by literally taking him into your own body.

Here in Cambodia, the festival of Pchum Ben also sets out to transcend the barrier between the living and the dead with rice giving and rice balls intended to satiate the ancestors’ torturous hunger, and also to symbolise the good deeds done to help release them from their torments. This giving of food offers a kind of redemption to the living in return, so that as they offer the rice balls they can feel a certain personal relief from having taken positive and tangible steps towards allaying the suffering of their ancestors. This ritual would not be nearly as powerful or important if something other than food were at its heart, because as food that they could otherwise have consumed themselves, it comes from the very stomachs and bodies of the celebrants.

But there are plenty of other, smaller ways we use food to bring luck or grace to ourselves and others that many of us do every day without even realising it. For example, unless you’re visiting the most irrepressible anarchist, you’ll never find a baguette turned upside down in a French person’s house thanks to an ancient belief that an upturned baguette is how the devil gets in. The Irish used to put a cross on their loaves before baking their bread to prevent the same devil from getting in and ruining them (he’s a tricky fellow, and may need to watch his carbs). And some today would still hang a loaf of bread in the house on Good Friday in order to keep away evil spirits. These traditions may remain, in little pockets and tiny threads, even if their meaning is lost, not in order to achieve the original desires of that tradition but in order to cement a sense of occasion and community which are arguably just as vital and life-preserving as keeping the devil out of your house.

Offerings of food, drinks and prayers are made to deceased relatives in pagodas
Offerings of food, drinks and prayers are made to deceased relatives in pagodas

And sometimes, it’s just a question of a habit you didn’t even know you had. It’s bad luck to spill salt in the West where it’s considered that the best remedy for that is not to clean it up but to take a pinch and throw it over your left shoulder so that you can blind the devil as he swoops in (and, incidentally, create another mess to clean up).

Have you ever been to a wedding where the bride and groom cut the first slice of the cake and handed out the slices? This goes back to a Victorian tradition that was supposed to herald fertility. And speaking of cakes, this is how we know that even the most diehard secular, scientific, materialist will have taken part in a ritual that was originally intended to ward off bad spirits, and joyfully too. The tradition of lighting and blowing out candles on a birthday cake can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who used to make moon-shaped cakes to celebrate the birth of the moon goddess Artemis. Burning candles on the cakes was believed to chase away the evil spirits who could be attracted by their revelries. Today even the most grey-minded of people would not refuse to share in this tradition, because as with so many customs around food, it is not the tradition, or the beliefs that birthed it, but the communality that counts.

Cakes can carry portents of the future too. In Ireland, the Halloween barm brack (a fruit cake) will often carry tokens that foretell whether you’ll marry over the next year—a ring: yes, a pea: no—have money, or worst of all, an unhappy marriage symbolised by a matchstick, with which to beat your wife. The French Gallette des Rois, enjoyed around Chandeleur 40 days after Christmas, also confers the potential for future bliss, though sadly only for the one day on which you find the bean buried inside your slice of puff pastry and frangipani and are automatically crowned King.

During Chandeleur too, hopeful brides from Brittany in northwest France can give themselves an extra edge in the marital stakes by throwing a crêpe on top of her wardrobe. We haven’t researched the origins of this particular custom yet, but imagine it may have something to do with someone getting their flip horribly wrong and having to make up an excuse for it on the spot. At this time, crêpes are also handy for bringing in money over the coming year if you can successfully flip one while holding a gold coin in your hand.

In Cambodia, food of course plays a role in many customs thought to bring in good luck or scare off bad luck, and is central to a ritual we see played out early every morning. The offering of rice and food, alms, to monks helps them to fulfil their duties and also to make merit for families and bring in the good luck that that entails. It’s a beautiful, timeless ritual played out in city and country alike.

If that hasn’t worked and things start going badly though, it is still common practice in more rural areas to perform rom dos krours (“bad luck removal”) by throwing rice over the unlucky person’s head from behind them. This is also thought to help the sick, and is rooted in the belief that the sickness comes from having wronged an ancestor.

It’s nice to remember these things if we ever find ourselves looking at another’s customs and thinking “well, that’s strange”. Human beings are wired for the weird, thank goodness, we just have different ways of expressing it. And no matter how much we may believe or not believe in the things we do, their real power lies in how they create an occasion, a ceremony, a positive action that bestows hope, and a reason for coming together. Just don’t spill the salt.

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