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I have never been a terribly superstitious person, save for getting a trite charge when the cult flick Drugstore Cowboy circulated the old Western myth about hats on the bed being an ominous sign, and some unexplained anxiety at the sight of coins in the face-down position. I’ve always been hyper-aware of the weirdness and misery that life deals out daily, so that’s kept my overactive mind busy enough to not let superstitions add to the clutter.
Turns out, I didn’t need to anyway. I’ve had plenty of people in my life who have taken up that slack. Good and bad, three of the most important relationships I’ve had in my life have been with my sister, my grandfather on my mom’s side, and my recently deceased life partner. Each one of these folks had an involvement in a food-oriented superstition that sticks with me to this day, sometimes causing an eye roll, sometimes a laugh, and lots of times some tears — often, all three at once. Though they have all passed away, these are some of the ways they still stick to my ribs.
I rarely cook a meal without thinking of my sister Nancy. She was 13 years older than me, so by the time I could start to understand what was going on in the kitchen, she was married and cooking for her own family. I’d sit at the table with her as she ground garlic and herbs with a mortar and pestle, making a garlicky spread for bistec (steak), which would get cooked under a huge slathering of onions for delicious results. It was like there was nothing she couldn’t do in the kitchen. Our family was a merge of Puerto Ricans and Jews, and she mastered it all, from pasteles to paprikash.
One day, when I was about 8, I was helping her out in the kitchen while she cooked with her friend. Being there made me feel like a grown-up, so I hung on their every word like it was a life source. My ears got especially perky when I heard my sister mention Julia, her mother-in-law. I was fascinated with that lady, and pretty terrified, too. She was fiery and loud and would try to hug me while shouting, “Give Hooooooolia a kiss, baby.”
What my sister was about to tell her friend made me abandon eating Puerto Rican food for years.
Julia, she said, told her that it was a Puerto Rican tradition for wives to cook their husband’s food with menstrual blood, in order to keep the man happy. She told my sister that she did it and that she should do it, too. I don’t remember much of the conversation from there because having recently learned about menstruation, my head started pounding, my stomach started swirling, and a menu of previously eaten PR meals played like a slideshow in my head. It all passed by: pernil (crispy pork), pastelitos (savory meat pies), beans, rice and pigeon peas, all of it. Only now in my mind, it was covered in a red sauce that didn’t have anything to do with chile peppers or spices. It didn’t even occur to me that my sister thought it was ridiculous. Once I heard it, my mind just ran with it. It took me about two years to finally ask my mom and sister about it, after dodging favorite ethnic dishes like the period plague I thought they were. They got a good laugh over it, and my mom got another reason to be grumbly about Julia, as the two were not fast friends.
Speaking of fast friends, rarely could anyone claim having that relationship with my grandfather. He was an extremely grumpy person who was notorious in our family for being thrifty, or as my one brother likes to call him, “a wooden-tooth-havin’, cheap-ass motherfucker.” The tooth reference was about his false teeth that were both so old and had such a harsh bite sound that they must have been issued at the same time as George Washington’s fabled wooden chompers. Aware of his own thriftiness, my grandfather often said he changed his name from Abraham Potrock to Andrew Preston to save himself a syllable. Once, while staying with my grandparents during college, I got a job at a convenience store and was the victim of a strong-arm robbery. Gramps’ words of comfort? “If you keep losing money for the store like that, they’re gonna let you go.”
It paints a picture.
When I was a child, my grandfather’s brother owned a beloved deli in Akron, Ohio, called Lou and Hy’s (he was Hy). It was where I discovered my all-time favorite sick and comfort food, matzoh ball soup. Hy made great balls. When we went with Gramps, he’d make a big deal out of going in the kitchen and getting the “special spoons.” They were, according to him, the only spoons we could eat matzoh ball soup with — anything else would cause us to get poisoned and we could die.
See, I traveled a lot with my grandparents, and as Bronx-born and -raised people, they loved a good deli. When we’d visit any deli, I just wanted a bowl of the soup, but because the only non-poisonous spoons were at Hy’s place, I couldn’t have any. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to order anything of my own. I always had to share parts of their giant sandwiches. And while I now can enjoy the hell out of a towering pastrami on rye like nobody’s business, little me just wanted a belly of warm soup. I had a lot of questions, one being: Why did so many restaurants have silverware that could kill us? I’d watch trays of steamy bowls of matzoh ball soup pass by, longingly, and Gramps would lean in and say, “They have their own special spoons.”
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My nana played along until I guess she reached her breaking point, and while we were eating at some deli in the Fort Myers, Florida, area, she slammed her water on the table and said, “Just let her have the goddamned soup, Andy, for crying out loud.” I didn’t want to die by poisonous spoon, so I put up a little fuss, and she said, “Oh, there’s no poisonous spoon, kid. Your grandpa is a cheapskate; eat the soup.” I ate the soup. It didn’t taste as good as Hy’s, but it felt good to look ol’ Gramps in the eye as I slurped every bite.
In another act of spherical drama, my partner of 16 years, Douglas, who passed away in 2015, had an intense interest in multicultural religions, philosophies, superstitions, and subcultures — Haitian Voodoo being one. Though it may not have originated in Haitian Voodoo, that was where he discovered the superstition of keeping an onion on the windowsill in the kitchen of your home in order to ward away evil spirits. Not just a plain onion, but one stuck with black-headed pins, for the utmost protection.
Our time together was pretty colorful, so I’m not sure what exactly got warded away. What definitely resulted was a lot of smelly, withered-up old onions with mostly identifiable bite marks: a cat, a dog, possibly a mouse, except for one set of toothy imprints that we could never make sense of — it looked like long fangs of some sort were involved and it created a nearly-perfect circle of absent onion in the center of the pungent veg. Douglas decided an evil spirit got caught within and somehow ate its way out to haunt someone elsewhere. It was as funny as it was creepy.
I don’t put onions on the windows now — his being gone is worse than what an unseen spirit could bring me — but I do laugh a lot as I peel and chop them, thinking about us holding that bitten onion and wondering what the hell had invaded its innards. The same way I laugh when I hit the too-few Puerto Rican restaurants in the Valley, thinking about the trouble my sister would have had to go through to actually partake in that old wives’ tale. Or how I sometimes sneak off to Miracle Mile for a bowl of matzoh ball soup, happy to be alone, chuckling, enjoying the hot liquid and mealy balls with a very non-poisonous spoon.