Food and Taboos

“Fish is brain food.”

“Fish will make you cold and slow and will block medicine power.”

“If it doesn’t have fins and scales, it is unclean.”

Don’t compliment a baby or you will bring down the evil eye. Don’t sit so that the sole of your shoe or the bottom of your foot is pointed at someone. Don’t touch someone on the head lest you interfere with their chi. Don’t eat within one hour before going swimming. Women shouldn’t bathe during . . .

Every culture has things that Must Not Be Done. Some of them seem odd to outsiders, and on occasion, even those inside the culture can’t explain precisely why you Don’t Do That. When anthropologists and folk-lore students start finding patterns, well, then it gets interesting.

Many Plains Indian peoples had taboos about fish – don’t eat them. Either they are just bad luck, or their are bad for medicine power, or they will make you slow, or . . . Up and down the Great Plains of North America, freshwater fish were taboo. Which made ethnographers wonder what the connection was, since these groups all moved to the Plains at different times, and had somewhat different cultures. What probably made fish bad news was the lack of fat. Most parts of the Great Plains, especially the western parts, lack carbohydrates but have lots of lean-meat protein sources. Eating too much lean meat without access to fats and carbohydrates can lead to medical problems, and that may be the origin of the prohibition. Season-dated Paleoindian bison kills show a preference for females in the fall (when they are fattier than males), but males in the spring (when females are far leaner than males.) Some archaeologists have speculated that rules of hunting might have included taboos, although we can’t tell.

The Jewish and Muslim rules about not eating pork are probably the best known food taboos in the western world, although they are not identical. Jewish rules hold pork to be unclean, but pigs may be raised and sold to outsiders. In an emergency, pork may be consumed if the alternative is starvation. Finding a package of bacon on the front step of a synogogue does not render the place of worship ceremonially unclean. The same is not true of a mosque. Pork and pigs are abominations in Islam, and are to be avoided at all costs.

Many food-related taboos are tied in with ideas of ritual purity and cleanliness. Insects and things that creep on the ground may be “dirty.” Likewise many cultures have a ban on consuming carrion eaters, because they eat decayed (and thus corrupt and unclean) flesh. For the Comanche, fish are unclean, and they won’t eat dog because Coyote is close to dogs. Other Indian peoples have no problem with consuming dog meat (the Cheyenne and Maya, for example) but the Kiowa eschew bear meat.

Ritual cleanliness also places a lot of limitations on women of child-bearing age. A woman having her menses is often ritually unclean, or might have the unfortunate ability to break medicine-power or certain blessings. In some cases, women were strictly confined away from sunlight and the rest of society, under the strict care of a post-menopausal woman, until their cycle had finished. In other cultures, the rule was that women of child-bearing age could not go near where the shaman or medicine man lived. Sometimes, women were to avoid hunters for a set number of days before a major hunt, to ensure that hunting magic would remain strong, and that the “scent” (real or spiritual) of blood would not contaminate the hunters and scare away the game.

Some cultures have a lot more taboos than do others. Entire slices of society might be under strict limitations because of a caste system, to the point that if the shadow of a certain person touches the possessions of a different person, the offender is to be executed for polluting the one of higher rank or spiritual authority.

The west doesn’t have as many religious taboos as many cultures, although we certainly have unspoken customs and limitations. Don’t talk about your income or job. Don’t tell dirty jokes or swear in mixed company. Certain cuts of clothing are not suitable for daytime or business attire. Don’t forget to leave a tip for a waiter or waitress, unless the service has been truly terrible. Men should remove their hats when entering a place of worship unless that faith requires the head to be covered. Don’t talk about sex, religion, or politics at the supper table. (Note that “religion” can include college or professional athletics in some parts of the country.)

And never, ever comment on a no-hitter baseball game in progress, or a smooth ride on a flight, or say anything like, “Boy, this equipment test is going really well!” Every fan, pilot, and tech or engineer will turn well-deserved wrath upon thee.

For an intriguing academic look at food taboos around the world:

The Hunters and the Romani

For a while, Lelia wondered if her boss was Roma. She knew the Romani/Gypsies from her street days, and learned to be careful around them. He knew about magic, but did not use it himself. He spoke in tongues arcane and strange, moved in an oddly graceful way, and had that little accent. Plus he looked sort of like some Roma. When she finally asked, sideways, with delicacy, he caught her meaning and said no. The Hunters and Romani acknowledge each other, and have mutual enemies, but they are not related, points of cultural overlap aside.

Both groups regard outsiders with distrust. In both cultures, the women are the obvious magic users, if there are magic users in the group. Both groups practice variations on Catholicism, although the Roma are much, much farther from traditional Christianity than are the Hunters, and some Romani have shifted all the way into paganism. The Roma and Hunter clans have at different points in time been persecuted. They can work together, if the need is sufficiently great. And they will trade information. But . . .

The Roma see the Hunters as another group of gadjo, to be treated with perhaps more caution. No Roma will try to steal from Belle, Book, and Blacklight. The first group was the last, and word spread. Nor will they harass other Hunter-owned and run businesses. In turn the Hunter clans don’t go out of their way to warn others about the Romani if a theft ring or carnival is at work. The Hunters feel that if no laws are broken, it’s not their business. If people get their pockets picked or lose money to a slick con, well, perhaps that individual will heed the lesson while it is relatively painless.

Back in the Old Land, the Romani and Hunter clans have worked together when needed. See the “common enemies” part above, especially the Ottomans and a few others. However, the Romani are not welcome on the Hunters’ territory past a certain point, and a wise group of caravans will depart as soon as is practical. Likewise a Hunter might find temporary shelter from the Romani if the need is urgent, but he will leave as soon as he can. Their magic is not entirely compatible. The Romani invoke far more spirits, good and ill, and use Elementals in ways that the Hunters do not. The Romani will find an item with an abyssal taint and happily tap that for their own purposes if they feel that they need to. The Hunters would destroy the thing the moment they found it. The Romani inhabit a far “greyer” world than do the Hunter clans, because of their wandering tradition. The only fortune telling the Hunters do is for fun, with Mistress Cimbrissa’s “knack” for reading threads as a great exception. Even she does not go seeking information from the threads, and she certainly does not try to prognosticate. If it comes, it comes, as the Great God and Lady will. The Hunter clans will not do tarot, rune-casting, or other types of serious divination of the future. Why goes back a very long way, and even Meister Gruenewald* abides by that taboo.

The Hunters have been in Transylvania for tens of thousands of years. They were in Europe for at least three thousand years before the Romani migrated (or fled) that far west. When the first Romani encountered the Hunters, they discovered a group of gadjo who they could not take advantage of, but who would not actively chase the Romani away (provided the rules of hospitality were strictly followed). Once the Ottomans began moving up from the south, the Romani and Hunters formed an intermittent alliance. Some Romani claim that the Ottomans (and Seljuks) drove their ancestors out of the homeland of what is now Turkey. Since everyone chased the Romani away, well, there is a grain of truth in the claim. However, Anatolia is not the Romani homeland unless they then moved far to the east, changed languages, and meandered back to the west.

Lelia and André avoid the Romani. Lelia dealt with them when she was on the Street, and while she respects them as survivors, she has no patience for their ways of petty theft and their cons. But she’ll ignore them if she can. Live and let live, you pass through but keep going and I won’t bother you . . .

*After all, as long as he’s been around, he can tell what will probably develop if someone (or a bureaucracy) does X thing. Especially if the fateful words, “It’ll work this time!” are uttered. He’s seen a lot of it already. Although the assassination of Franz Ferdinand turning into a global war did strike him as being a bit excessive. That was, when he wasn’t dodging battles and armies.

The Hawk Ball Returns

Tie down your hats and get ready to duck—the Mississippi kites have returned for the summer.

Tuesday evening I ventured out for a stroll. It wasn’t too smokey, or too hot, and clouds masked the worst of the evening sun. The park was full of kids doing kid stuff, people with dogs, and activity in general. I happened to see a pair, then trio, of birds riding thermals or wind currents. I couldn’t tell if they were hawks or our buzzards. (There is a buzzard rookery in one of the old, high-dollar neighborhoods. The folks there don’t like the buzzards*, but can’t get rid of them, either. The rest of us just make sympathetic noises.)

As the birds came closer, I could see that they were raptors. They passed overhead and I aw the distinctive pale heads and darker bodies of male Mississippi kites. two males, one female, soared over. I grinned and followed, since that’s where the sidewalk went anyway. Soon more and more kites rode the evening wind. I stopped to count, and identified ten. After a moment I meandered on my way.

A few minutes later, more motion caught my eye, and I counted fifteen birds in a loose group, rising and falling on the evening wind as they traveled south-southeast. They will return to roost around the park, in a few other trees, and to take advantage of the locusts and other insects that thrive in early summer. Spring officially arrives with the kites. They will depart in August or early September, moving into more food-rich climes.

*When I was at Flat State U, some migrating buzzards decided to rest on the roof peaks of some garden apartments. This led to irate calls to Animal Control. It seems that the apartments were part of a Senior Living Facility, and the residents did NOT like having buzzards watching them, loitering and lurking. The buzzards departed the next day.

Polonaise: Dance, Jacket, or Sandwich Spread?

OK, probably not the third option, but one never knows. There’s also a French sauce polonaise, just to further muddy the waters.

All these things are derived from the French adjective form of Poland. The music, a form of the sauce, and the jacket all derive from Polish folk music, cuisine, or folk costume.

A polonaise gown from the 1700s. Fair Use from:
Eighty years later . . . Image source:

From the front:


The original form was a dress with a trim bodice that opened into an over-skirt. The back and sometimes sides were looped up into a bustle, revealing the color and details of the underskirt. I suspect the idea was to keep the outer skirt away from whatever you were working on, and you had an apron on over the dress. Or it was a way to show off embroidery and lace or ruffles on the under-skirt.

The polonaise musical form is a march in 3/4 time, or so it sound like. It is stately and does not have the intimate feel of a waltz. (Keep in mind, the waltz was scandalously intimate when it first debuted. His hand was where?!? They were how close?)

As you watch the video, note that under the faster beat is a slow 1-2-3, 1-2-3. It’s a very different feel from the 1-2-3, 1-2-3 accented pattern of a waltz or minuet.

This is a concert polonaise rather than one intended for dancing, but you hear the same tension between the march feeling and the three beats to the bar. Chopin is famous for his polonaises, but other composers did and do write them.
In some ways, the polonaise reminds me a bit of a quadrille and other group dances (Irish, American) with the lines and movement. All hands are accounted for at all times. 😉

Cabbaging onto a New Leaf

It is one of those phrases I never think about until someone else boggles. I was talking about maps and navigational charts, and observed that I had possessed one for the area under discussion, “but a student cabbaged onto it and I haven’t gotten a current one.” The instructor blinked hard, and observed that my dialect and my accent did not match. And added that he understood the meaning, but had never heard “cabbage” used as a verb.

When I was growing up, at least within the Red family, “to cabbage onto” something was to steal, often by borrowing and somehow never returning it. I never thought about it being somewhat unusual. “Took a cotton to her,” is common in the US South, or was. “Turn over a new leaf,” even though it didn’t refer to plants. But “to cabbage?” Apparently it is a Midwesternism, found in Nebraska and parts of the Dakotas. Now, these are states settled by people who grew and stored and consumed large amounts of cabbage as part of their native cuisines (Germans, Bohemians, Scandinavians, Irish, Poles, Mennonites and Hutterites). So my guess is that cabbage theft was known, and disapproved of, and so “to cabbage” meaning “to steal” became part of the regional dialect. However, the OED says that the oldest usage of cabbage as a synonym for “to steal” goes back to 1793, and England, so who knows.

Cabbage onto. “To take a cotton to” meaning to like, which might come from how sticky short-staple cotton fibers are (they cling to everything because of static). “To tree” means to chase some animal or someone up a tree, literal or otherwise.* English doesn’t seem to have many other instances where a plant is verbed. Perhaps “to tomato” in the sense of to pelt someone with rotten produce, perhaps. I’ve never come across “to turnip,” or “to cucumber.” As metaphors and similes, sure. “Cool as a cucumber,” “red as a beet,” “he’s in a pickle,” which originally referred to the keg, barrel, or vat of brine used to preserve whatever was being pickled.

English is strange.

*”To pine” as a verb goes back a ways, but traces to Latin poena meaning a punishment, not pinus (also Latin) as in the tree.

Goth Bardic?

So, I was listening to the Wagakki Band and this appeared on the side-bar. Interesting juxtaposition.

Blind Guardian is better known as a heavy metal/speed metal group, but they also do, well, Tolkien-rock and things like this. It’s a sign of a good song that you can strip out the genre cues and it is still catchy and memorable. I suspect it will appear in a Familiars book.

When Money gets Expensive

Note: I am not an economic historian, and I am eliding a lot of monetary policy detail.

Right now, everyone is wincing at the inflation in progress in the US. Money is cheap compared to “stuff,” so the dollars per unit of stuff is going up. Most of us, I suspect, are far more familiar with inflation than deflation. Historically, inflation gets all the attention from historians. Roman emperors did it by diluting silver currency with lead or copper. Byzantine emperors did it by diluting silver currency. Spain under Charles V and Phillip II did it by accident when the treasures of the American poured into Seville and Madrid, thence into the economy of Europe to pay for the various Spanish wars. It hit again in the early 1600s when local nobles diluted silver with lead and copper.

What about deflation? If inflation’s bad for most people (like, oh, most of Europe in the 1500s-1600s), then deflation is good, yes? Prices go down, your coin buys more stuff per unit of coin, and everyone’s happy. Yes, if you are a consumer, or if you are collecting on a debt. If you are a producer of goods, or are paying off a debt, each dollar/schilling/mark you pay on that car loan is worth more and more flour/lattes/music CDs. And it takes more grain/chickens/butter/fabric to pay for each dollar in taxes. Instead of fifty bushels of wheat, now you have to pay one hundred bushels of wheat to get the same amount of coin/money.

That was the United States after the US Civil War. The country had become an industrial nation, although agriculture was still very, very important, and farmers had some political clout, if they could all get together and use it. However, it seemed to many rural people that the industrial east (steel, oil, railroads, consumer goods, the binder twine monopoly) ran both the economy and the country, to the detriment of the people actually growing and mining the stuff. Part of this lay in the US government’s insistence on a firm gold standard, with little or no coinage in silver. Money was very, very expensive. So expensive that it attracted British investors, who could make a fortune loaning money to American businesses at 10-15% interest, as compared to the 3-5% interest back in England.*

People, namely consumers and businessmen, in the urban areas did well and the standard of living was growing nicely. People who had to pay taxes in gold coin or gold-backed notes, and who produced food and fiber, felt trapped and squeezed. They paid taxes. City people didn’t. (The income tax didn’t exist. Taxes were land taxes, and import/export.) Farmers and ranchers and miners had to scrape up gold coin for taxes and other bills, even as prices they got for their grain, cattle, and fiber dropped compared to the value of that coin. With the discovery of the big silver loads in Nevada, Colorado, and California, westerners and farmers began pushing for “free silver.” They wanted a bimetallic standard, gold and silver, and cheaper (inflated) money so that they could pay their bills and prosper.

Toss in the international economic splat (Panic) in 1873, the first modern global recession, then a downturn in 1886 and the Panic of 1893, and you have three decades of lack-of-progress for some, along with growing labor unrest. On top of that, new immigrants were arriving from Central and Southern Europe. They spoke little or no English, dressed funny or seemed otherwise “Off” (Italians), tended to be Catholic or even Jewish, and worked for cheap compared to native-born Americans. Oh, and a few people in Europe were assassinating elected and hereditary rulers in the idea that if you eliminate the monarch, the government will go away and Paradise!** And Marx’s ideas were in the air, but they weren’t all that popular in the US just yet.

Out of this you get the Progressive Movement (efficiency, internationalism, experts know what is best for the rest of the people, central government over state governments) and the Populist Party, which was an outgrowth of the earlier Farmers Alliance and Farmers’ Union.*** The Populists wanted cheap money (Free Silver!), limited immigration (no Brits buying huge chunks of land that Americans needed), and more attention paid to the West and Midwest, especially to farmers’ demands. The Populists were in some cases, like the earlier Alliance, multi-racial, or tried to be. One of the reasons for Jim Crow in the South had been to keep poor whites and poor blacks from working together to oust the old elites from political power.

So inflation’s not good, deflation’s not good, and thus far, I’m not certain anyone has come up with a way to achieve “just right” for more than a few years at a time. You want a stable form of exchange that doesn’t get “watered down” with lead or copper, or that governments can’t produce through handwavium. You also need to keep that medium of exchange from becoming too expensive for people to use. Somewhere there’s a Goldilocks point of not too inflated, not too deflated, and prices for currency are just right compared to prices for stuff. Somewhere . . . Somewhere . . .

*Ever wonder why so many huge ranches were owned by English and Scottish companies? They had the cash to invest. The Swan, XIT, Rocking Chair Ranche, JA, ROW, and others all came from British money.

**The Anarchists tended to be hazy on the steps in-between, and often disagreed with each other.

***The Farmers’ Union is still around, and still somewhat active in Kansas and Nebraska and South Dakota.

Book Review: Breverton’s Phantasmagoria

Breverton, Terry. Breverton’s Phantasmagoria: A Compendium of Monsters, Myths, and Legends. (London: Quercus Publishing Plc. 2011)

Some days, or times of day, you just want something you can pick up, nibble for a page or two, then set aside. This is that sort of book. If you want to read about the Gordian Knot, the Ship of Fools, The Flying Dutchman, learn if snakes really do flee from naked men, or puzzled over the story of Prince Madoc, you can find all that and more in this book. It is great for trivia buffs, writers in search of plot seeds or McGuffins, or people who occasionally read while in the, ahem, Reading Room.

I get the feeling that Mr. Breverton collected odd bits and things, snippets and archaeology reports and mythologies and folk lore and archaeological reports a bit like a bower bird. It is a book you can read through by topic, or just open at a random page and nibble at random moments. The writing style is light and somewhat breezy. A few things I sort of shook my head at, because there’s a bit of “gee-whiz!” at times. Spaceflight in the Mahabarata? Um, I’d like to see other translations of the text. The book starts with people, then monsters and ghosts, then magical places (real and otherwise), flying monsters and odd things in the sky. Mysteries of the deep comes next, then strange artefacts and maps and stuff, treasure tales (Oak Island again), and wraps up with “is this legend true? Well, here’s what inspired it.)

All in all it is a fun book, and the two things that I back-tracked he was correct as far as sources went (did a boloid explosion do-in Soddom and Gamorrah? Quite possible, which led to my reading about something similar, at about the same time, in the Alps.)

The book is available on Kindle, but that takes some of the fun of “open to a random page” out of it. Breverton seems to be a trivia buff, because he has several more themed titles.

Two paws up.

FTC Note: I purchased this book with my own funds, and received no remuneration for this review.

Open Floor

What topics would you like to see me blog about? I was working on City, Priest, and Empire and Day Job things this weekend, and alas, my blogging brain took a day off.

I hope to push through during Spring Break and get the Merchant book done. It will be close to 100K words, making it the longest book I’ve written to date.

Wind Creatures

OK, actually Strandbeest, or “beach creature,” but they are wind-powered and amazing, occasionally creepy, cute, and make me boggle at the mechanics and engineering every time I see them. They are the brain children (brain pets?) of the Dutch sculptor Theo Jansen.

Image used under Creative Commons Fair Use. Original found at:

Jansen started the project as a way to draw attention to the problems he feels that Anthropogenic Climate Change (ACC) will cause the beaches and sand dunes of the Netherlands. He uses PVC pipe and waste plastics (straws, plastic sheet, bottles) to build creatures that are actuated by the wind. A system of water injection to the “feet” helps the beests stay on top of the sand. Technically, they are called kinetic sculptures, meaning that they are supposed to move. Most kinetic sculptures are closer to Calder mobiles. These are more like the flattened fossile creatures from the Burgess shale, brought back to life.

Jansen built his first large Strandbeest in 1990. It had a few technical flaws. Over time the beests have “evolved” as Jansen puts it, no longer breaking their own backs as they walk across the beaches. He sells plans and encourages people to make their own small versions. The engineering is amazing to watch. I know it is gearing and levers, but there’s something very cool and a little eerie about watching these creatures walk with the wind.

I’m amazed by the things.

And here’s Adam Savage, who built a model Strandbeest, having fun with Theo Jansen and a real beest.