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.
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.