Traditional Innovation

Thinking about...

The loss of tradition: when should it be mourned and when is it an evolution, an adaptation to the changing needs of a changing world? When is loss actually innovation, not degradation?

There’s trickery in researching and writing about “traditional” culture as a white New Yorker with little attachment to my own ancestry beyond Brooklyn. Spending so much of my time delving into others' feels as much like a craved comfort as it does trespassing. The line between cultural appreciation and appropriation is hazy, and the inclination to romanticize foreign craft is easy to trip on.
That’s why it feels important to pick apart aspects of a recent trip I took to India, where I made bread with other people’s mothers. 
In the U.S. we have a way of elevating a task like bread making, assigning it creative acumen, and those with the skills are exalted. But the women I met in Rajasthan put my efforts to shame; they rolled perfect chapati after perfect chapati without strain or ego, having done it every day since marriage. When bread making is a duty, a tradition passed down so long as a woman will fulfill the task (i.e. stay at home and do it), there's little veneration. Skills aren't deemed gifts so much as they are products of practice, dedication, repetition. 

Sarda, in the countryside outside Mandawa, Rajasthan

Unlike our easy dismissal of gluten in the U.S., if chapati making ceased in India it would imply the changing of the fundamental family structure. And it is changing- girls are going to work, their education is being subsidized, and people are moving from villages to urban centers. In 2012 a survey counted 205 million women between the ages of 15 and 60 whose occupation was best described as "attending to domestic duties." Down the line, will there be a renewable stream of women to maintain that, as there has been in the past? And if not, are we supposed to lament it?  
For today's bread, many of us crave the way that was. New developments run backwards: we revitalize heritage grains and bake naturally leavened breads in ashy holes in walls. We dream of the time before Borlaug's wheat monopolized the world's supply (itself once considered one of the greatest innovations in modern food), before big industry wrecked our taste buds, and gluten wasn't practically outlawed in Los Angeles. But things shift course (hurricanes, democracies...). We take stock, we try to clean up the messes, we recalibrate. Bread isn't what it used to be, because today is not yesterday. 

Talk of innovation can feel at odds with traditional foods. How can this be? Innovation is necessary adaptation, not newness just for the sake of it (though we are often prodded to create for this reason, lured by the glow of the TED stage, no doubt). Everything we eat, drink, wear, sing, whatever, originated elsewhere with no intention of becoming the thing it is today. Their forebearers were all innovations at their start, despite their current antiquity.

I’m attracted to ancient methods and ingredients because they almost entirely originate from a place of necessity, and because they provide clues to our common human threads. It’s easy then, especially as a person who lacks any keyhole into her own ancestral traditions, to latch onto those that remain. The worn-in, lasting things. But in our efforts to conserve and remember, we risk rendering a culture static. Society, mores, philosophies- not just technologies- evolve past certain traditional methods with reason.

My experience in Rajasthan wasn’t focused on studying formulas and “authentic” tips. It was overwhelmed by an awareness of the sacrifices some women have made to uphold the perpetuation of these breads. The things I’ve written on my return are not recipes. They’re realizations of my own agency to be able to make- or not make- bread at all, and to have anyone call it art, at that.

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