Friday, April 8, 2016

The Nature of Tradition

View of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
- Vincent Van Gogh, 1888
There appears to be a great deal of variation if not outright confusion surrounding the meaning of the word 'tradition'. Ask around for a definition and you're likely to receive a response along the lines of  what tradition means to 'me'. Like so many words, such as art and beauty, the contemporary use of 'tradition' has been so extended and personalised as to be diluted of any clarity of meaning or any shared objectivity. Taking beauty as an example, an organised spreadsheet or devilishly orchestrated hostile takeover might be touted just as 'beautiful' to one beholder as a Provençal field of lavender in spring is to another. Alternatively, a can of excrement quite likely will be considered as much 'a work of art' as a painting by Van Gogh; individual expression being the minimum, really the only requirement to be so called. 'Tradition' I would contend however, is fundamentally not an individual enterprise.

As American as Apple Pie

Who doesn't love the buttery, flaky crust filled with the sweet, tarty goodness of green apples? I could hardly think of a more recognised symbol that captures the spirit of particularly American tradition. It's not a tart, a torte or a strudel. Neither will blueberries nor rhubarbs do as an alternative filling. It's apple pie and it's American as it gets. Apparently, Americans have been baking these pies since the days of the Puritans, well before there was a United States. Apple pie remains one of the few desserts many Americans can still make from scratch. Along the way suet got replaced with butter and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg were added as they became available. Subtle changes, improvements came along as recipes were passed down from one generation to another over the past 400 years.

So, what about the Twinkie? You know, the "Golden Sponge Cake with Creamy Filling" currently owned by the private equity firm Apollo Global Management. Is the Twinkie an American tradition too?

Hey, what if I want to make a Twinkie!
Well then it's time to go shopping. What will I need? Ok, here's my list:

Courtesy of:
Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour [Flour, Reduced Iron, B Vitamins (Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid)]...√, I think?
Corn Syrup, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup...√,  √, √
Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable and/or Animal Shortening (Soybean, Cottonseed and/or Canola Oil, Beef Fat)...eww gross but √
Whole Eggs...√
Dextrose...hmm, I'll ask Angela 
Modified Corn Starch...√
Glucose...√, maybe
Leavenings (Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Baking Soda, Monocalcium Phosphate)...I'll just stick with baking soda √
Sweet Dairy Whey...pretty sure I can find that √
Soy Protein Isolate...?
Calcium and Sodium Caseinate..??
Salt...whew, got that one √
Mono and Diglycerides...???
Polysorbate 60..????
Soy Lecithin..?????
Soy Flour...that might even be healthy √
Cellulose Gum...gum section I guess √
Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate..?????
Natural and Artificial Flavors...well, that's not helpful. Hope they're not important
Sorbic Acid..???????
Trisodium 1-(4-sulfonatophenyl)-4-(4-sulfonatophenylazo)-5-pyrazolone-3-carboxylate)...Hell no! 
Disodium 6-hydroxy-5-[(2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo]-2-naphthalenesulfonate...WTF is that!

Obviously, this is not going to be easy but let's say for the sake of argument I can gather the ingredients less the unrevealed "natural and artificial flavors". Then what, can I make a Twinkie? I'm sure I could make some kind of cream filled golden sponge cake but would it be a Twinkie? My understanding is that the manufacture of the Twinkie is not so easy. To achieve the signature shape and look requires a massive amount of costly industrial infrastructure that entails complex government regulation and permitting. But again, for the sake of argument let's say I cut a few corners on the ingredients and can produce a reasonable facsimile with the equipment available to me in my kitchen at home. Would I be able to bake, market and sell Twinkies?

Perhaps the Twinkie is a tradition but I'll argue that it is not a tradition in the same sense that apple pie is a tradition. Twinkies are only a tradition of consumption. In fact, I would go further in asserting that Twinkies and most all mass produced products of industry are anti-traditional; they undermine food, architectural, textile and many other traditions. Furthermore, they tend to consistently manifest the following 3 characteristics:

  • Massive capital investment
  • Standarisation of processes and systems
  • Proprietary intellectual property

Bye, bye miss American pie...

"Never does Nature say one thing and Wisdom another"
- Juvenal, 2nd century C.E.

However, allow me to digress and return to the subject of tradition. Our English word tradition derives quite directly from the Latin "tradere", literally meaning something given, "dare" over, "trans". Since its first recorded use it has always carried the sense of something "given or handed over", particularly from one generation to the next, such as recipes from a parent or grandparent to a child or the skills passed on from a master to an apprentice.

Traditions are distinctively democratic, the original "open source" know how belonging to the "commons"; millions of minds addressing themselves to the needs of, and constantly evolving and improving the pleasure of everyday life. Furthermore, traditions have proven to be eminently sustainable. For tens of thousands of years mankind had lived in accord with nature because it saw itself as nature in stark relief to Modern society's standardised, proprietary, heavily capitalised industrial processes that treat humankind as one big marketplace and the earth as little more than a mine from which to extract every possible resource, unsustainable indefensible behaviour that will inevitably lead to environmental collapse. Impersonal corporations target for elimination, by inhuman systems of competition and bureaucratic decree the inherited legacy of tradition that took our fathers thousands of years to build, the cultural know how to live at equilibrium with nature just when we'll need it most.

Are you a traditional craftsman, farmer, musician or the like? Think of yourself as you truly are: at first the beneficiary and now guardian, trustee of hundreds if not thousands of years of investment, accumulated human wisdom of how to live in harmony with nature as an authentic human being.

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Courtesy of Patrick Webb

1 comment:

  1. Great article! A very creative approach to defining the phenomena!