Respect and Tradition

Vivian Howard Watching an episode of A Chef’s Life this morning brought into focus a lot of the reading and thinking I’ve been doing lately. Tradition comes up in a variety of forms. It can be discussions of what have become traditional styles (e.g. Arts and Crafts, Shaker, etc.) or it can be the matter of traditional working methods. There’s a lot of talk in woodworking publications and sites lately about getting past some of these “traditions” and into other more rewarding modes or periods for discussion. That’s all well and good, but what does it really mean to work with/within a tradition?

E.P. Thompson suggests that there were several varieties of medievalists at work in the Victorian era. Some were most interested in emulating the substance of gothic affectations, making objects/buildings that looked medieval on the surface while being totally unconcerned about how or why these objects existed. This is a shallow sort of fashion following; it exists in virtually every sort of endeavor you can name. Others, like Morris for example, were interested on the sociality of medieval workers: their methods of interacting with others inside or outside their trades, modes of exchange and manufacture, etc. more so than the actual products produced or exchanged.

It dawned on me this morning that the most obvious difference here is between respecting practice rather than product. This doesn’t mean that product doesn’t matter, far from it, but by achieving the ends desired by using similar or identical means we offer a greater degree of respect for those who produced the products that we admire or are influenced by.

The boredom I think that many (rightly) feel about styles that have become too commonplace (like Shaker or Arts and Crafts) results from too shallow of an exploration of the practices rather than products. I feel like I’ve hardly begun with both of these styles, mostly because it is so unclear just how they produce the mental effects they do. I feel a sense of peace and well-being when I’m at the Hancock Shaker Village that comes from proximity to not simply artifacts or things (I suspect much of what’s there are copies) but from a constellation of material evidence for a way of life that has long passed.

Which brings me back to A Chef’s Life.  I had never thought of meals as having a “theme” (beyond an ingredient or a regional cuisine) until I watched the pair of episodes in the second season where she cooks a luncheon to celebrate the women that matter most to her. Yes, it’s about regional North Carolina foods, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about respecting her mother, and grandmother by trying to reproduce not simply their flavors but their methods of making the foods she loves. The heartbreak, when she had to resort to restaurant methods for producing one of the dishes instead of the way her mother had always done it, is palpable. She was so afraid that it just wouldn’t be the same, and reading that if if it failed it wouldn’t have been the first time she failed.

But more than that, it was the moment that she revealed how hard it was to watch people reject the “Tom Thumb” dish meant to pay homage to her grandmother, by witnessing it travel half eaten or not sampled to the garbage can after the luncheon showed just how personal and heart rending the experience of sharing a tradition with people not ready to appreciate it can be.  It’s not so much about rejecting a product that doesn’t fit contemporary tastes as much as rejecting a culture that she labored mightily to share. It was a really moving moment for me, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it all day.

It’s easy to think we can improve upon the past, especially when it comes to improved technologies and materials. But to deny the simplicity and effectiveness of traditional practices disrespects those who came before us. Why are we so sure that our way will be better than the traditional methods? The ultimate respect we can pay to those who came before is often to simply reproduce not only their products,  but their methods— to do otherwise implies that we are somehow are better or smarter than they were. It’s easier for me to see that as disrespect now.