Old wives tales

Words: Anthony Power   Illustrations by Samuel Esquire

Old wives tales

We've all heard them, superstitions lacking proof...


We’ve all heard them, and probably even have a few ‘swear-bys’ handed down from your crazy uncle – superstitions that you adhere to, even though you have no quantifiable proof that they work. Old wives’ tales have, literally, been around for millennia and one thought as to why so many of these superstitions relate to food and the kitchen, is that the kitchen has long been the busiest room in the house, a focal point. With this, come some strange, some ridiculous, and some downright bullshit beliefs.
Here are just a few of our favourites.
Chicken soup to cure a cold
This is one of the all-time classics. It’s not a cure, as such, but research has shown that a steaming bowl of hot bird broth is, in fact, much like a hug-in-bowl and can help relieve the symptoms of the common cold. There is even talk in some parts that it can be effective in treating the life-threatening symptoms of man flu, although I personally do not believe this for one moment. We all know that nothing can cure man flu.
Hair of the Dog
This is a colloquial English expression, which refers to the consumption of alcohol in order to lessen the effects of a hangover. The ultimate hangover cure? More booze. Makes perfect sense to me and I know it’s a tried and tested truth that the editorial team at Root + Bone have long sworn by. So simple that it must be true. Corpse Reviver cocktail anyone?
Breaking the chicken wishbone for luck
This dates back to medieval Europe, with evidence of this practice mentioned in a tale of a great Bavarian feast in 1455. The wishbone must be hung in the kitchen and allowed to dry until it is brittle. Using their pinky fingers, two people must pull apart and snap the wishbone. The recipient of the larger piece then gets to make a wish… I wish for more chicken.
If you spill salt, throw some over your left shoulder
This legendary tale dates back to the 1500s and finds it origins in Leonardo Di Vinci ‘The Last Supper’ - a pile of spilled salt can be seen near the crook of Judas’ arm, presumed to have been knocked over by the traitor himself. Thus, spilling salt is associated with bad fortune and corruption, and to spill salt is to invite the devil himself into your life. Common belief at the time was that the devil sat on your left shoulder, while God perched on your right, so throwing salt over your left shoulder was said to blind the devil once he had appeared. The devil seems to be a bit of a pussy if that’s all it takes.

Cheese gives you nightmares
How many times have you heard this one; eating cheese before bed will give you nightmares? Whilst it seems pretty far-fetched, there is some truth to this. Bacterial microbes and the amino acid, tryptophan, that are present in cheese are the culprits here - they contain chemicals that affect our serotonin levels, which has been proven to reduce stress, balance hormones and induce sleep. The British Cheese Board actually funded a study (money well spent) into this and found that, while there was no concrete evidence linking cheese and nightmares, eating cheese before bed can actually aid sleep and may, in fact, induce nice dreams. They also concluded that consuming different cheeses causes different dreams, with Stilton packing the most Freddy Kruger-esque trips.

A watched kettle never boils
I am a little surprised that this one has enjoyed such longevity. I just put this to the test and can tell you without any doubt, it does.
Chewing gum takes seven years for you body to digest
More rubbish fed to us by our parents. While the gum-base itself, which is usually made from natural or synthetic polymers (including butyl rubber, used to make inner tubes) will not be broken down during digestion, you will simply jettison it out as you pass the rest of your waste.
Give a penny with the gift of a knife
This is a common belief around the world, from Europe to China. To gift someone a knife is very bad luck and said to ‘cut the ties of friendship’ or, even worse, bring death. The giver of a knife, according to many traditions and superstitions, should only offer a knife with a penny or coin attached, which the recipient promptly gives back to the giver as a "payment" for the knife, thereby preserving their relationship.

A tea towel draped over your left shoulder will prevent your eyes watering when chopping onions
This one comes direct from my grandmother who swore by its effectiveness. She was a magnificent cook, having worked in pub kitchens before and after WWII and I can still remember her famous roast potatoes. But, I am sorry Nan, I am calling bullshit on this one. It has never once worked for me.
A teaspoon placed in the top of a bottle of champagne will stop it going flat
This, I hate to say people, is also rubbish. There is a little truth to this, in that a bottle of bubbles kept in a chilled fridge will stay fizzy for longer, but this is because the cooling action of the fridge makes carbon dioxide more soluble, and thus it is more easily retained in the liquid. The solution? Just finish the bottle.
Potato peelings to heal a burn
I’m not sure where I heard this one but I’ve used this medical hack for years while working in kitchens, and trust me when I say, it somehow just works. Not sure if it’s the starch in the potato (or what the hell is happening) but it stops the burning sensation and, most of the time (as long as the burn isn’t too hard-core) it also seems to stop the burn blistering and helps it heal faster. I’ve read that there are hospitals in India where they use potato peel bandages on burns, as they are naturally non-stick, they keep the wound moist and they are more readily available than medical gauze. So, maybe this is where this tale originates.
Place an apple in with your potatoes in your larder to stop them sprouting
This one is from the family of old wives’ tales about how to ripen fruit. Apples give off ethylene gas, which is the apparent reason for their effect on potatoes. An unripe banana will ripen quicker in a brown paper bag, which traps the ethylene gas released from the fruit. How this gas ripens some fruits and yet halts the ripening (and sprouting) of potatoes is unknown, but it works, so if it ain’t broke…

New Year’s Eve traditions
On New Year’s Eve in Spain, at the stroke of midnight people eat 12 grapes, one on each chime of the cathedral bell, to bring good luck for the coming year. In Poland on this same night, people eat pickled herring while holding a silver coin, again to bring fortune. In England, people just get shitfaced.
Pour white wine over spilled red wine to remove the stain
This, I think we all know, is complete bullshit. I’ve heard of a few tweaks to this tip with the addition of baking soda or salt (and even soda water) but I speak from first-hand experience having tried, and failed miserably, attempting to ‘fix’ a spilled glass of Rioja at my mate’s place. He now is the proud owner of a very large, lovely-shade-of-dusty-pink carpet stain, right in middle of his lounge. Not surprisingly, I haven’t been invited to any of his barbecues this year. What a waste of good white wine...

Garlic to ward off vampires
Probably one of the most famous and well-documented food superstitions is that garlic fends of vampires and the ‘evil eye’. There is great debate about how this tiny allium seems to hold such powers over a creature than can shape-shift into a bat and fly, lives for eternity, drinks the blood of living creatures, and can only be killed by a stake through the heart. One thought is that, back in the 19th century, garlic was used in gardens to repel mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects, and this lead Bram Stoker to use it for the first time as a weapon against The Count is his classic novel ‘Dracula’.
Never take bananas on a fishing boat
Another strange one; some fishermen believe that bringing a banana on board a fishing boat will ward off any potential catch. The origins of this possibly date back to the 1700s, when international shipping boomed and many ships were lost at sea, quite often with bananas on board after returning from tropical climes. To this day, many fishermen still swear by this belief, with some going so far as to not even allow Banana Boat sunscreen aboard their vessel. Thar she blows!
Parsley - the devil’s herb
There are many strange, wild and bizarre superstitions believed about this herb, most likely due to its prevalence in European gardens, which dates back over 3000 years. Here’s a couple: Never transplant the herb, as it will bring a death to the family of the person’s garden you plant it in. Nor is it seen smart to gift the herb to a friend, again due to the bad luck it will bring to the recipient. In ancient Greece it was strewn across graves to ward off spirits, and was served with meat to appease and calm spirits of slaughtered animals. Parsley can take a long time to germinate and, due to this, it was believed that it had visited the devil nine times before the seeds sprouted, hence the bad luck it can bring. Interestingly, it will apparently grow best in a garden where the female of the home is more powerful than the male; “where the mistress is the master, the parsley grows the faster”.

The Ortolan
Of all of the food- and kitchen-related superstitions, perhaps the most cruel and guilt-ridden must surely be the barbaric practice around the catching, preparing and subsequent eating of the ortolan bird in France. The ortolan is a small finch-like member of the bunting family. This cute little bird is caught in large nets as they fly between trees and put into very small cages, where they then have their eyes poked out. The now sightless bird thinks it to be night time (I assume after it has recovered from the pain of losing its eyes) and subsequently gorges itself on the grains that are fed to it in order to fatten it up. Once deemed fat enough, it is then drowned alive in Armagnac. As it drowns it inhales the booze, which marinates the bird, readying it for cooking. It is then roasted whole for about 10 minutes before being eaten, also whole; head, bones, guts – the lot. When chewing on this little trooper, the tiny bones lacerate the inside of the diner’s mouth, causing it to bleed slightly. The diner’s blood mixes with the pocket of roasted Armagnac that bursts from the bird’s lungs and stomach, releasing a rich, fatty sauce.
So shameful was this practice, that it was customary when eating the ortolan to place a napkin or shroud over ones head, to hide one’s face from God, due to the debauched nature of the capture and preparation of such a tiny, harmless little creature. Thankfully, this dish is now banned in France, and has been for some time.