Some of the Questions I Get

I know I am not alone, neither as an university professor in general nor as a professor of folklore in particular, in getting a wide variety of inquiries by e-mail and by telephone. A recent appearance in an article on local folk healing practices in the local paper, for example, netted me a telephone call from a gentleman wanting to know if he was doing things right. I also regularly get inquiries from journalists, filmmakers, and writers.

A recent inquiry from someone claiming to work for a British television production company, and which had an internal bounce address of `jamieoliver.internal` contained the following:

> Dear Professor Laudun,
>
> I hope all is well with you.
>
> Please forgive the random email but I just wanted to ask you a question regarding an article I found about the Cajun Microwave.
>
> My name is Patrick and I am currently working on a UK based TV series about food. I am currently investigating this cooking instrument (also known as La Caja China, Inversion Cooking Box or The Chinese Magic Box).
>
> My questions to you are:
>
> * What is the origin of this cooking device? (Online there seems to be various origin stories, some suggesting Cuba, some suggesting China as the inventors of this concept).
> * Why is it referred to as a Chinese Magic Box?
> * Are there any unique facts about this instrument that aren’t widely known?
>
> I appreciate it’s a big ask but it would be fantastic to learn more about this item and I know you are the perfect person to ask considering your wealth of knowledge.
>
> Anyway it would be fantastic to hear from you.
>
> Thank you so much for your time and all the very best to you.
>
> Kindest regards,

This was a more precise question than normal, and so I hope my response was helpful. I got a nice note of thanks. Here’s my note:

> Interesting you should ask. I just finished interviewing the man who made several thousand Cajun microwaves in the 1980s and actually several patents on refinements he made.
>
> The larger history is less exotic that perhaps some of your sources might suggest: the Cajun microwave is, like a lot of devices/utensils like it, a version of the Dutch oven — those large cast iron pots with rimmed lids that allowed you to place coals on top, so that cooking can either be accomplished from both top and bottom or only from the top. The Cajun microwave, according to Kurt Venable, the man I interviewed, is a refinement of the Russian camp stove, which is itself a sheet metal version of the Dutch oven.
>
> But you should also know that the moniker of Cajun microwave was applied to a variety of cooking technologies that were seen as perhaps less “technological” in nature. I’ve heard pits dug for pig roasts — called locally “couch on de lait” because it’s usually a suckling pig that’s cooked — that are lined with sheet metal to reflect and intensify the heat called “Cajun microwaves.” It’s a kind of self-deprecating humor that you no doubt have encountered among a number of groups that have a complex relationship to what is generally described as “mainstream” culture.
>
> Because of the high level of acumen with sheet metal work in particular and metal work in general — because of the oil industry — there are a wide variety of local, and individual innovations on common cooking technologies like barbecue pits, smokers, etc. I have seen a lot of metal tanks and pipes cut up and welded together again with a great deal of thought given to careful control of the heat and smoke.

A more typical kind of question looks like the following from a novelist:

> Hi John,
>
> I found you through the UL website. I’m a reporter and novelist based out of Houston. Right now I’m researching Cajun folklore and I’m trying to find out if there is a Grimm Brothers-type of counterpart for Cajun folklore.
>
> My book takes place in 1926 New Orleans so ideally I’d like to know if there was a major folktale collector before or during that time period.
>
> Any ideas?

Okay, I admit it’s a little weird when people write you out of thin air as if you were a long lost friend, *Hi, John*, but you get over it after a while and try to focus on content you can stand behind and that the inquirer might find useful:

> The only collectors active in Louisiana before, or during, 1926 would have been Alcee Fortier, George Washington Cable, and Lafcadio Hearn. Of those three, Fortier was the most systematic in his work. Much of his work is referenced in the two great indices of folklore scholarship, the Aarne-Thompson tale-type index and Thompson’s motif index. Seeking an exact counterpart to the Grimms one hundred years after the Grimms is a bit like seeking good wagon builders in twentieth-century Detroit. The Grimms collection is an interesting one, but flawed in many, many ways — especially as it increasingly responded to being a blockbuster print publication and William kept cleaning things up. But, in general, texts you’ll find collected by folklorists will be much more raw than those that are represented by journalists. Saxon et al’s work is interesting, for example, and reaches back into the era that interests you, but it’s not clear how much has been added by the authors themselves, who were quite accomplished literary entrepreneurs in their own right and enjoying the “authenticity” such materials lent to their own images and publications.
>
> I hope that helps.

And that’s just July 2013. It’s all year round.

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