Food for Thought: Tradition versus Progress

Cappellacci di Zucca di Ferrara

Cappellacci di Zucca di Ferrara

Is tradition an obstacle to progress?

The topic came up over aperitivo with friends last week.  While this question can be applied to almost anything humans do, we were talking about food.  (Surprise, surprise!  People talking about food in Italy).

Food in Italy is deeply rooted in history: this is something you always hear but somehow don’t begin to grasp until you visit a small Italian town where families have been making the same dish for centuries.  Last weekend, we visited nearby Ferrara and ate the signature Ferrarese pumpkin-filled pasta, Cappellacci di Zucca, a dish that appears in a cookbook from 1584.  That’s 430 years ago!  Each region, each province, and each town in Italy have their own set of food traditions.  In Ferrara, they’ve been making Cappellacci di Zucca for at least 430 years; in Bologna, tortellini for at least 463; in Modena, balsamic vinegar for at least 408; and so on.  We just can’t relate to this extent of food history in the U.S.  The closest thing we have is the Thanksgiving turkey, which we eat one day a year.

Another thing we didn’t fully realize until moving to Italy is that pretty much ALL the food here is Italian.  (Duh.)  Or perhaps, to be more accurate, I should say ALL the food in Bologna is Bolognese.  (Duh).  It’s something we knew theoretically; but didn’t sink in until we went out to eat for about the fifteenth time and found ourselves asking not “What shall we have?  Italian?  Mexican?  Chinese?  Thai?” but rather “Pasta, prosciutto, or pizza?”  We were also caught off guard by the curtness of the trattoria waiters when taking your order.  We would still be working to translate the menu when a waiter would scuttle over and bluntly say “Dimmi” (Tell me) followed by “Poi?  Poi?  Poi?” (And then?  What else?  Anything else?)  A friend explained: A) most regulars don’t need to translate the menu like us stranieri (foreigners) and B) they barely have to read the menu  before ordering because most restaurants in a given city carry the same dishes (and they’ve been eating these dishes since birth). They likely know before arriving at the restaurant whether they’re in the mood for tagliatelle al ragù, tortellini in brodo, or stinco al forno.

This commitment to local dishes can be looked at from two sides:
1) Tradition: Food is culture and culture is food and it’s essential to protect Italy’s cultural heritage by preserving these regional cuisines.
2) Progress: Being skeptic towards new foods can foster a society in which people become stuck in their ways and potentially close-minded.

Coming from the U.S. where we have little food tradition and lots of fast food, I am justly impressed by and smitten with Italy’s food culture.  I had never thought there was a downside to preserving culinary traditions.  Since the topic came up, I’ve been mulling it over, looking at the issue from both sides.

Siding with Tradition

Like I said, this side is easy for me to take.  After one bite of fresh, homemade tagliatelle, it’s clear that the average Italian eats way better than the average American.  I am immediately grateful for the long line of Italian grandmothers who taught their successors how to roll out pasta by hand, and am happy this tradition thrives even after the arrival of the industrial pasta factory.  But Italians don’t just eat well — they respect their food and the animals and earth where it came from.  Shopping locally and eating seasonally is a natural instinct for Italians.  Why would they eat an un-flavorful tomato in the Winter?  Moreover, Italian food goes hand in hand with their strong ties to family.  Food is enjoyed slowly sitting around a table amongst family and friends.  And despite all the good food they eat, Italians are slim.  When you compare their waistlines (and diabetes rates) to those of Americans, you can’t help but think they’re on the right track with their traditions.

With progress, we’ve seen innovations that save us time in the kitchen and free up time for us to do other things (i.e. the microwave).  But it’s also introduced technologies that are potentially harmful — monocropping, pesticides, genetically modified plants, and antibiotic use in livestock, to name a few.  Progress has brought about fast food and T.V. dinners leading Americans to largely disconnect from their food; most Americans have no idea what’s in the food they’re eating or where it comes from.  We have a food system with an almost untraceable link between farm (or lab) and consumer; one that uses “natural” ingredients made from crushed up beetles, human hair, whale vomit, and beaver butt glands; one that favors crop yield over flavor; one in which tomatos are picked unripe and then artificially turned orange with ethylene gas and sold in the grocery store 10 days after harvest.  Yum.

Siding with Progress

The U.S. has been called the “Melting Pot” since the early 1900s for a reason.  With very few traditions of our own, we’ve adopted a diverse set of foods and traditions from those who’ve immigrated to the U.S.  In some cases, the traditions of different ethnicities stand alone, allowing us to enjoy Pad Thai one night and Pho the next next; but in some cases, the traditions melt together, creating an utterly delicious fusion of flavors (kimchi quesadilla or California sushi roll, anyone?).  Italian specialities like balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes were little known in Italy outside of the regions in which they were produced until Giorgio DeLuca (of Dean & DeLuca) sought them out and imported them to the U.S. in the 1970s.  Americans went crazy for them.  They started putting balsamic on their salads and sun-dried tomatoes on their pizzas (something Italians had never done) and then the Italians started copying the Americans spreading the popularity of these items throughout Italy.  Also in the 1970s creative chefs in California started to revolt against the  strict French discipline under which they had trained, sparking the California Cuisine movement.  In 1982 Wolfgang Puck opened up Spago in Los Angeles where he put scallops, baby zucchini flowers, and smoked salmon on pizza, popularizing the California-style pizza we’ve come to know and love.  So strike one against “Tradition” is that if no one breaks from traditional recipes, we’ll miss out on tasty new dishes.

An initial thought on why strict tradition could be a negative is that it could get boring eating the same dishes over and over.  One of my Italian friends told me that when he was growing up he used to eat tagliatelle al ragù everyday, for lunch and dinner, EVERYDAY.  If I had to choose between a world of fast food and a world of tagliatelle al ragù, I’d definitely side with the tagliatelle, but a little variety (and a little Pad Thai) would be nice. Another thought is that traditions aren’t always inclusive.  What if you eat vegetarian, or vegan?  I don’t imagine it’s easy to call up your Bolognese mother-in-law and ask if you can bring veggie cous cous to Sunday lunch (cause you know asking her to make something without meat, egg, or cheese is not an option). Then there’s the issue of time.  Preparing food the traditional way and enjoying it over three hour meals is time you could be working, making progress in other fields.  Every artisan pasta maker or cheese maker is one less construction worker, banker, or engineer.

Looking deeper, you can imagine how being set in your ways at the table could extend into other facets of life.  If you have a strict allegiance to Italian food, specifically the Italian food from your hometown, and specifically the way your mother or grandmother makes it, what are the chances you’ll move away from home?  And if you never move away from home, what are the chances you’ll be open to new foods as well as new people, cultures, and ideas?  This is a stereotype, of course, and one that doesn’t align with our experience in Italy.  In fact, all of our Italian friends are well-traveled and open-minded (they’re willing to be friends with two Americans with bad Italian after all).  But theoretically, I can see how strong ties to the past and resistance to change could inhibit moving forward.

Finding Balance

Come on now!  You know I’m not one to take sides.  As in all things, it’s important to find a good balance between preserving traditions and making progress.  I’m glad that someone invented the refrigerator and the blender; I’m glad that California pizzas exist; and on days I don’t have time to think about food, I’m glad I can buy something healthy to-go.  But I’m also glad that there are still people in the world preserving local traditions; people who know how to make pasta, bread, cheese, and stock from scratch and people who know how to farm organically.  I’m also thankful that I’ve gotten a taste of the Italian lifestyle and know how to slow down and enjoy a three-hour meal when I do have time.

I guess this was a long winded way of saying that I’m glad there are both innovators and traditionalists in this world.  When we swing too far one way, the other is there to help guide us back center.

Thoughts?

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