Historical vs Traditional

In the same vein as my post on semantics, I have some thoughts about this particular word choice and why it matters.

I was watching this lovely video from historical costumer Morgan Donner about her favorite mug and the potters who made it for her, when my ear caught on the way the potters described their work. They called what they did “historically inspired”. These potters are people who essentially creatively reconstruct extant pottery from past centuries, seemingly mostly of European origin. I say “creatively” because they are not trying to reproduce the exact methods of construction or derive an identical product, but instead produce something with the same look that is suitable to current standards of food safety, washing and heating methods, and durability, keeping in mind that pottery is meant to be much longer lasting in the modern era than it ever was historically. I was fixated on this use of the word historical because when it comes to pottery, these are not lost traditions, but ways of producing crafts that have largely gone out of style. Just about anywhere in the world, you can still find people making pottery that is intentionally anachronistic for our time, using methods and styles that are not desired by modern standards of efficiency and minimalism. So, there is a dividing line between those kinds of craftspeople, who are trying to maintain a historical tradition in a modern setting, and Morgan’s potter friends, who are adapting the historical tradition to the modern.

The difference between these can seem like it boils down to a kind of precious perfectionism, since it’s not clear that most people could tell the difference between the methods used to make pottery that are evident in the final result. So, in that sense, it’s a matter of aesthetic standard, not on a scale of high to low, but on a scale of handmade to machine made. But that scale has a deeper association as well in our society. If you as a craftsperson make something entirely by hand, eschewing modern technologies like electricity and automation as much as possible, it is either a conscious choice to step outside of your normal life, or your normal life somehow does not necessarily include these things even though you live in the modern time. This is where the question of historical vs traditional starts to take “authentic” into account.

Authenticity is a really slippery term, and in situations like this, it can stand as a euphemism for “disadvantaged”. Something is authentic because it is rough, lacking in “modern” polish. In that sense, the aesthetic market for authentic goods is also a kind of economic tourism, a romanticizing of the culture in places that have been denied modern conveniences and thus, seemingly, modern problems. A handmade bowl maybe calls to mind a simpler life that is free of emails and social media pressure and smog. This association is actually the original meaning of Romanticism, harkening back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the social and environmental effects of industrialization were starting to be felt in western Europe. Wealthy people whose livelihoods were not dependent on factory jobs and the like bemoaned the loss of a pastoral European ideal and developed an artistic and literary movement around appreciation of the “untouched” world that industry was consuming. They had a point, but they didn’t really realize how much they supported industrialization even as they fought against it.

Today, Romanticism isn’t as much about the physical changes to the landscape and the culture as it is about social connections – the argument is that in subscribing to a world of convenience, we have lost a world of interpersonal connection. And this, I would argue, is the driving thesis of the food world at the moment. For the last decade or so, food media have pushed an almost contradictory combination of #goals – Michelin-starred restaurant food and working-class family togetherness. You can see this play out in this 2017 video from Bon Appetit featuring Samin Nosrat. I love Samin and I think her community-forward approach is genuine – you can certainly tell that from her limited run podcast Home Cooking, which was mostly her hanging out and laughing with her friend Hrishi. But this video isn’t so much about Samin’s approach to food and community as it is about Bon Appetit’s marketing of a particular aesthetic. It’s a faux-rusticism, wealthy people who buy a farm to host large parties where James Beard award-winning chefs experiment with foods based on wacky childhood stories. It has everything. But that’s not how farmers actually cook.

I can date this approach to food back to at least 2006, when this article appeared in the NYT Dining In/Out section. It’s a piece that would get absolutely skewered today, and my purpose here isn’t to criticize it, but showcase it as part of the early stages of this Romantic way of thinking about food. The author, Cecilia Barbour, complains about how her rural in-laws think her peasant-food cooking is too fancy because she disdains packaged ingredients as much as possible – all this as a lead-in to a recipe for beans. She says

I know full well that making anything by hand — bread, furniture, sweaters, supper — that you could just as well buy is frivolous. Cooking like a peasant takes years of practice in the kitchen (something that real peasants came by quite naturally).

Peasant Food Is Simple? You Aren’t a Peasant – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

There it is, all tied together. You, reader with disposable income, can cosplay as a peasant, making things by hand that modern technology has made cheaper and easier to do by machine, knowing all the while that to do so is frivolity. Peasants are even subtly framed in the past tense, as if poor people no longer exist, a species that went the way of the dodo. But that was over 15 years ago. Today, making things from scratch isn’t questioned in the same way – it’s not hipster pretension, but a genuine return to a better, slower way of doing things.

In light of that shift, the food world has similarly reframed the slow food movement around what is often seen as “traditional” ways of cooking. And for a while, there was a pretentiousness in what was considered traditional. Because, going back to the start of this train of thought, anything becomes traditional if it’s done long enough. Reem Kassis, author of the recent cookbook The Arabesque Table has explained this distinction beautifully:

So let’s start with the easier one, the word authentic. I find that word slightly problematic. I mean, it’s good in the sense that it might convey something. When I say authentic Palestinian, I’m referring to dishes that to Palestinians have been enjoyed and cooked for a couple of centuries, at least. But if by authentic, you mean dishes that are free are void of outside influence. Then those dishes do not exist. And just to give you examples, tomatoes, they did not come to Italy until the 18th century. So all those quote, unquote, authentic Italian dishes like Spaghetti bolognese and you know, Pizza al Pomodoro and all these dishes that are tomato based did not exist in Italy 200 years ago. Chilies did not come to Thailand or India also until after the Columbian exchange. And yet, can you fathom any kind of Curry that doesn’t have chilies in it? No. When we talk about chocolates and or Belgium, the cocoa bean also did not come to Europe until after the Columbian exchange. So if by authentic people mean something that has not been influenced by outside culture or has not evolved through time, then no such thing exists. It’s a, it’s a fiction. If by authentic, what you mean is a dish that is meaningful to your people, to your nationality, a dish that has been enjoyed for at least a couple of centuries or several generations fine, but it’s important to be clear about what you mean by authentic, because if you want to go by the dictionary definition, then it’s, you know, it’s hard to find really, really authentic foods as per culinary appropriation for Palestinians. I’ve written quite a bit about this, which, you know, it’s difficult to summarize it in one or two sentences, but I think the important takeaway from the entire topic is, especially as someone who’s writing about how food evolves and food is adaptive and adoptive and how fusions the history of cuisine in general is there’s a big difference between culinary diffusion, which is how food changes through time, how it learns from other cultures, adapts and adopts, and between appropriation, which is taking something from another culture and willfully denying or ignoring that culture’s contribution to what you’re cooking. And I think that’s the issue for Palestinians. And obviously when you say it’s relevant to Palestinians, you’re referring to the issue of Israel, appropriating Palestinian dishes and marketing them abroad as Israeli. And the primary issue there is that it’s a willful denial of the Palestinian contribution, which is seen by most Palestinians as an attempt to rewrite the past and make it a past in which we do not exist.

The Arabesque Table | Reem Kassis — Cookery by the Book

As Reem explains, traditional food is anything that becomes part of the culture, regardless of where it came from or how it started. But there is also a way of adopting that tradition out of its context, removing it from its culture, and freezing it in time. This, she argues, is where appropriation causes a problem for people in the present, because they lose ownership of one of the few things they can still lay claim to, and thus no longer receive the benefit of it.

The historical/traditional debate, then, is about your position on authenticity and its place in the present. If, as Reem says, you define authenticity by its adherence to an isolated, untouched culture, then you have encapsulated that thing in a particular historical moment and divorced it from the present – it is historical. If you recognize the capacity for culture to change, for contradictory things to exist in the same time, and you see old ways of doing things operating in the present – it is traditional.

It might sound like I’m making a value judgment here, that traditional is better than historical. Really, I’m arguing for an awareness of context. There are some traditions that don’t exist anymore. There are some things that really are gone. But it’s not as much as you think. Participating in history, appreciating history, shouldn’t come with a disregard for the present. My point is that before you label something as historical, limited to the past, you should investigate whether it actually still exists in some form in the present.

My final example, which might just ruin everything I’ve written up to this point. Long ago, people in northern Europe told stories about and used symbols to represent a set of mythical figures that we now call the Norse gods. They recorded them using a writing system of Nordic runes. This tradition became less common as Scandinavia became progressively more Christianized, although it probably never disappeared entirely. In the present, there have been multiple movements to revive this tradition, especially the Nordic runes, as symbols of Scandinavian heritage. One of these is explicitly political, invoking runes as a representation of a modern notion of racial whiteness that Nordic peoples have been made to represent, particularly during the Nazi era. Another is less so, implicitly using runes and other aspects of this tradition as a loose tie to the identifiable ethnic origins of Scandinavians in present cultures that can feel like anonymizing melting pots. Both of these are present interpretations of something historical, although arguably the second is more of a “traditional” approach. Neither one is fundamentally “correct”. But one is actively harmful. The first, political, invocation of Nordic culture extracts a frozen historical concept and uses it in a completely different way than it was originally intended in order to incite hate. The second, on the other hand, tries to recognize the way that the historical thread still exists in the present and continues to adapt to new circumstances. It still draws artificial boundaries around a place in time, but it is more considerate of context, more productive, and, most importantly, not directed at the eradication or subjugation of any group of people. This is an extreme set of examples, not all historical revivals are going to become part of hate groups. But, I say for the millionth time, context is important. Recognize how an aspect of culture existed historically, and consider how it is used in the present. Don’t frame something as historical if it’s still alive today. Please history responsibly.