Earlier today, I came across Feed Me Bubbe, a collection of podcasts on Jewish cooking. I enjoyed watching their stuff, and I'm absolutely certain that all concerned with the production mean to faithfully represent their culinary tradition. Further, when Bubbe enthuses about the flavor of her preparation, I know that she and her brood have taken great enjoyment from her cooking. I feel I've found a kindred spirit when I hear Bubbe talk about the joy of passing along her traditions, of seeing her way of life enjoyed, learned and appreciated by young people and their even younger children.
So far so good. But then I run into this - the food I saw Bubbe prepare did not seem traditional to me. Am I right? Does this make her wrong? What do these questions even mean?
What is the essential meaning of traditional cooking?
If one of your elders does things a certain way, if your family has done it thus for many years - how can this not be tradition? To you of course it is. And for Bubbe's family, I am certain the question of authenticity has not been an issue.
But still, it might be the case that some such family tradition is demonstrably not representative of the broader cultural heritage from which it nominally springs. With a bit of culinary archeology, it might be possible to definitively pin down where things diverged and so on.
Is the distinction between a family tradition and the essential underlying tradition that forms the shared basis for myriad family variations important? To me it is. Does this mean that Bubbe should be enjoined from passing her traditions along? Certainly not - the more the merrier. But still - I'm troubled.
I admit, I'm grasping for the right formulation here. How about this - there's fundamentally two kinds of information available on food traditions - Anecdotal info such as Bubbe's (or anyone else's recipe); and Researched info (for lack of a better term) which codifies that which one must know to properly understand the entire spectrum of individual variations. Hmm - getting pretty thick.
How 'bout an example - Feed a food-savvy man a Peking Duck and he's had a good meal. Take that same man on a walk through China Town (for a month or so) where he can see, smell and taste 100 different Peking Ducks side by side - and you might end up with an expert on Peking Duck. The important part of the difference for this discussion is not expertise - it's the capacity to understand the relative importance of the many individual pieces of information contained in a recipe.
And so, perhaps finally that's what I think distinguishes tradition from practice - it is that essence of what people do - The part which is important.
In Big Night, I think Primo says the tympano has "all the most important things in the world inside".