Folklorist David J. Puglia
is an assistant professor at the City University of New York and in his latest book - Tradition, Urban Identity, and the Baltimore “Hon": The Folk in the City
(Lexington Books, 2018) – he considers the term “hon” and its significance to residents of Baltimore. In that city, the word has a particular salience and is often associated a certain type of blue-collar woman who sports a beehive hairdo and cat-eye glasses. More generally “hon” invokes “a place-based notion of authenticity and community for which Baltimore was supposedly once renowned” (xii).
Following chapters which look at the history of the folkloristic study of urban traditions and the history and sociocultural landscape of contemporary Baltimore, Puglia presents a series of case studies that all involve the word “hon”. The first involves “Hon Man” who created placards featuring the word that he then affixed to “Welcome to Baltimore” signs – to the approval of some residents and the dismay of others. The second concerns “Honfest” – an annual event which Puglia likens to a “battleground where city dwellers could negotiate what Baltimore was and what it meant to be a Baltimorean” (91). The last revolves around the outcry – aka the “Hontroversy” – which erupted when the public caught wind that Denise Whiting – owner of a popular local diner called Café Hon and a founder of Honfest – appeared to claim ownership of the term as part of a branding campaign; as Puglia details, an intervention by the famously hot-tempered celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay eventually led to peace. Overall Puglia argues that “the folklorist’s challenge in the new century is to address cities as contested social spaces in which folklore, or the creation of practices that appear folkloric, services residents across ethnic lines” (xv).
As noted by Lisa Gabbert, “Puglia expertly traces how in Baltimore, the word 'hon' moved from a stigmatized to an esteemed vernacular for purposes of collective civic representation and the controversies such a move engendered. In doing so he adeptly explores important issues of class, identity, representation, commodification and the privatization of folklore”. In sum, Gabbert states, Tradition, Urban Identity, and the Baltimore “Hon" is “
an excellent case study of the processes of the selection and invention of tradition in a city that deserves more attention to its folk traditions”.
Rachel Hopkin is a UK born, US based folklorist and radio producer and is currently a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University.