Meanderings in the Maze of Food, Tradition & Identity

It occurred to me that the words tradition and traditional crop up frequently in my posts. I use these terms to describe recipes or specific events that involve special foods. So, what exactly do I mean by these terms? For a while now, I have been wrestling with the subject and thought it seemed appropriate fodder for thought at this time of year.

My dictionary defines tradition as a handing down – generation to generation and usually by word of mouth – beliefs, customs, ways of doing things, etc. I have found, in the case of food and culinary practices there are also different scales of tradition – based around a family, a religious community, a geographic region, etc. These foods also serve to identify us to those particular cultures, ethnic groups, or families. They are generally thought to be old, their origins obscured in history. Often, but not always, they are tied to a point in the agricultural calendar (such as a harvest), or are created for a specific celebration (whether secular or religious).

Simple? Well…the more I looked into it, the more complex, and sometimes contradictory, the meaning of tradition and its use as a marker of identity became. Investigating the subject is like navigating a maze, peeking into dead ends and occasionally losing my way and going around in circles. Hence my post title.

lucca_maze_feature
“Cretan” Maze or Labyrinth from the 12th or 13th century carved on one side of the portico of the Duomo, also known as the Cattedrale di San Martino, in Lucca, Tuscany.

To add to the complexity, multiple interweaving issues seem to crop up, circle around, connect, and merge with each other. The following are some of these issues, told in a rather random, rambling fashion (lost in that maze), but I think you will get the picture of what I am trying to convey.

Change is definitely one of these issues – a major one. I was recently reading an academic book on a study of the traditional Greek kitchen, based on ethnographic work done on the island of Kalymnos that indicated many of the islanders felt their food tasted better because it was made in the same way, using the same list of ingredients, as it always had been. This, to me, is a kind of fossilisation, a non-change model for the meaning of tradition. I also believe it to be a fallacy, though perhaps a myth that the islanders adhere to in order to define their identity by specific foods made in a time honoured way. I believe it is a common perception as I have encountered this belief in many different places, not restricted to Kalymnos or even its wider Greek culture.

Yet, contrary to this non-change model, change does happen and many recognise this with the regard to food traditions. David Lebovitz in his new book, My Paris Kitchen remarked that:

…cultures and traditions change over time. Italians didn’t always have tomatoes, chiles weren’t always part of Thai cooking, and hamburger meat didn’t originally come from America.

And how change relates to food and identity was aptly put in an article from the New Yorker that was making the rounds among Facebook Foodies that I follow. The article, A Foodie Repents stated the following:

Once upon a time, food was about where you came from. Now, for many of us, it is about where we want to go—about who we want to be, how we choose to live. Food has always been expressive of identity, but today those identities are more flexible and fluid; they change over time, and respond to different pressures.

Authenticity is another issue. “Traditions which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented,” so says Eric Hobsbawm in a book he edited with Terence Ranger called The Invention of Tradition. Although the book is not about culinary traditions, Hobsbawm’s statement may be true for some rituals designed around food. For example, the Scots have created a tradition to celebrate the birthday of their most celebrated poet, Robert Burns. In fact, if entries in YouTube are to believed, many people around the world now perform this ritual, perhaps to identify themselves to real or imagined Scottish heritage. The ritual features bagpipes, recitation of Burns’ poems (particularly his Ode to a Haggis), and the prescribed Burns Night menu with cock-a-leekie soup, bashed tatties and neeps, copious amounts of single malt, and (of course) haggis as the centrepiece, typifying traditional Scottish food.

Modern commercial promotions, another issue, also play a part in inventing food traditions. The Ploughman’s Lunch – a composite of cheese, bread, and pickles/chutneys, and (of course) beer – is a very modern tradition, invented by The British Cheese Bureau in the 1950s to promote the consumption of cheese, popularised by harkening back to an idealized pastoral English past of happy, well-fed farm laborers eating bread and cheese, quaffed down with pints of cider or beer. Yet, it is considered by some as a traditional English pub lunch.

Historical origin is another related issue. Some traditional dishes were created for a specific reason and can be tied to a specific historic event, like Coronation Chicken for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 (although this is said to be a variation on an earlier dish, Jubilee Chicken, for the jubilee celebrations of King George V in 1935). But most have nebulous origins lost in the depths of time. In fact, most traditional recipes cannot be traced back to a specific inventor who first came up with the idea at a specific time or for a specific event. For the most part, they have been transmitted orally – for example, a recipe passed from mother to daughter and so on down the generations.

Yet, many of these traditional recipes have become encapsulated in print and other media forms. Look at all those cookbooks, cooking blogs and magazines listing numerous re-workings of traditional recipes. Like all living traditions, those traditional foods change, are modified through time, embracing new ingredients, new methods of cooking, or given personal “twists” by enterprising individuals. Many chefs, like the much celebrated Ottolenghi, are pros at re-inventing these traditional dishes for modern consumption. There is so much available to us, to broaden our horizons and bring someone else’s tradition into our own. Of course, that circles back to identity and individual choice – the fluidity and flexibility – mentioned in A Foodie Repents quoted above.

So, emerging from the maze, I still find the simple dictionary definition to my taste. It encapsulates all of the above rambling meanders. Tradition is defined as a handing down – a literal translation of Latin traditio, the root word from which our English word derives. It implies a personal touch, an intimacy between the one handing down and the one receiving, and I hope that still allows for change and individual creativity. That is what I mean by tradition and traditional.

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24 comments

  1. I’ve grappled with this a few times. In my travels, authentic and even traditional can change from town to town and house to house. It what your mother gave you, Love the break down!

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    • It is such a tricky and complex concept to pin down. I, too, have noticed regional differences at different scales – households, village/town, regions, countries… Also, in Europe at least, many of these “traditional” foods were created long before modern nations and regional divisions were established, so they don’t follow along those lines. That, plus the introduction of ingredients through ever changing and expanding trade routes. Makes the puzzle a bit more interesting!

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    • The book, Invention of Tradition is great, something my husband recommends to his MA students, particularly those concentrating on Heritage Management. Will be an interesting read when you post on chocolate fondue. You meet the most interesting people!

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  2. Thanks for a thought provoking meandering on the meaning of tradition and food KW. Got the old brain box ticking and I am totally on board with the idea that tradition is a handing down of a blend of our continuallly evolving history and new experiences.

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    • It is fun seeing how things evolve and change. It is one of the things that struck me when reading historical cookbooks. The basic recipes we use today may be there, but they are different and often employ different techniques. Tastes change, as do availability of ingredients. Glad you liked the post!

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  3. Great post Debi. We Aussies grapple with “tradition” every Christmas. It begins with cards featuring snow scenes, hot and heavy food when the weather is 38C, dried fruit when fresh berries are ripe and plentiful, a sad carry over from our British heritage, perpetuated by IMO a misguided sentimental attachment. Dec 25th in the southern hemisphere is Chrismassy too, bring on the prawns and icy cold beer, mangos, cherries and berries, back yard cricket and barbecues!

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    • It’s that identity thing – white Christmas with Turkey (although this is also very recent) and stodgy puddings that identify the culture back to Britain. A bit like the world-wide celebration of Burns Night by those of Scots descent (or those who wish they were Scots!). I guess Aussies need to re-invent the Christmas dinner tradition to suit their seasons and local produce. I like the idea of a Christmas BBQ, cherries and fresh salads. I’m all for that idea – part of that changing aspect of living traditions.

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    • Can also apply to ethnomusicology + other “traditional” things. Wow, finally able to contribute to pottery studies! Certainly not one of my archaeological strong suits. If you are interested, the Kalymnos book was written by David Sutton and called “Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island”, published 2014 by The University of California Press. Very interesting!

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  4. I enjoyed the way this post made me think! I like the symbol of the labyrinth–although there are so many different pathways, it is at the same time calming to be walking in one.

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    • Thank you! I wanted to get people to think about these terms. They are used all to frequently to describe foods without any thought as to what they imply. It is not an easy puzzle to unravel, but a step in the right direction (apologies for the mixed metaphors!)

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  5. One of my favourite topics too 🙂 There is a German saying along the lines of: “Tradition is about passing on the fire, not the charred wood” which I think nicely captures the enduring emotional content of traditions …

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  6. I’m really glad you wrote this. I struggle with the same issue. Thanks also for the book references 🙂 When I first started my blog, my grandma asked me “How come you don’t cook Jewish?” The question really bothered me. It’s how she cooked. It’s how her mother cooked. It’s how my mother cooked, but my mom broadened her horizons. She made us Indian food and paella growing up. For me, tradition became the assimilation of where you’re from with where you are now and where you want to be. It’s such an interesting concept. Thanks so much for addressing it.

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    • It is a very interesting and complex concept! And, then there is the identity issue – even more complex. But, you are right, food tradition is a living, changing thing that involves personal choice. I guess we are lucky in our multicultural world to be exposed to all sorts of different tastes. You do cook Jewish (at times) as I cook Pennsylvania Dutch (at times), but we have also expanded our repertoire to include other traditions. I think at heart I am Mediterranean!

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  7. I find myself confronting the traditional v authentic question frequently, as I attempt to learn more about my “family’s” recipes. Which “family” contributed the recipe and from what region? With so many of the old timers gone now, the answers are getting harder to determine. Traveling to San Marino was proved that a few of my assumptions were wrong. It’s so true that the more you discover, the more there is to learn.

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    • I was trying to emphasise that tradition is a living phenomenon – therefore things change over time. Also, with immigrant populations, it changes when there is a geographic separation from the homeland. And, that isn’t even considering personal choice. What I am trying to say is that it is only natural that the recipes from your family in the US differ from the family members still in Italy. But, if you want to learn how the recipes were done by pervious generations (especially before some of them are lost), then I think your search for “authentic” recipes in Italy and San Marino is exactly the way to go about it. Whatever the case, your search seems enjoyable to you and many of us are enjoying your posts about them!

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  8. I note with interest the term ‘fossilization’ when you referred to some Greek traditons that haven’t allow for change or any modification. I find this is the case with italian food on the whole. It can be wonderfully simple and ‘authentic’ or rigidly traditional and repetitive. I find it surprising how ‘closed’ italians can be to the food of the world. Young Italian folk come to stay here: they have eaten Chinese food once and they once had a kebab once. The rest is not Italian cuisine- no, but regional food or food from the paese. Even sicilian food is foreign to a notherner.
    We have our family traditiional foods, but with each maker comes a modificatiion, a new twist on the same theme. Just don’t mess with great grandmother’s Christmas plum pudding or the brandy sauce!

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    • It is funny, but an Italian student of my husband tells me that many Italians when travelling abroad complain that they are being starved as there is no food (worth eating) to be had outside of Italy – or even outside mama’s kitchen. Also, it is similar with Greeks. Many of our Greek students are often sent “care” packages of food from home to stave off starvation. I think this fossilised idea of tradition is based on concepts of home and identification. It is a false idea in reality, but a necessary one in some people’s minds – if that makes sense! I prefer to try new things, modify my traditions according to personal taste… But, I wouldn’t dream of messing with great-grandma’s recipe for Christmas pudding! Some things are sacrosanct! 😄

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  9. Lovely discussion, but I have to agree with Francesa – tradition is well and good, until it ossifies. When something stops changing, in my opinion, it dies.

    Traditions are what you make of them. My family Christmas tradition, for instance, is a turkey and Swedish meatball dinner with all the fixin’s. My fiance’s family does lasagna. My Christmas tradition for four years now has been bacon-wrapped pork loin over lard roasted potatoes with a clementine and red onion salad with honey and dijon mustard vinaigrette. But I like to try new things, so aside from that constant, everything else is up for grabs.

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    • You can come to my house with that pork loin – drooling already! Traditions, to me, are living things that are meant to be changed. We picked and chose traditions from both sides of our family – adapted some, rejected others – until we have our own traditions. I expect the next generation will do the same when their time comes. Hope you have a Merry Christmas!

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