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everything you believe is a lie. sorry!
There’s a popular TikTok account that occasionally makes its way to me. An American woman torments her Italian boyfriend by breaking the cardinal rules of Italian cuisine: snapping pasta before boiling it; drinking cappuccinos in the afternoon. It’s a variation on a long running gag. The uncultured anglophone offends the continental traditionalist, who is positioned as the defender of the good and right. A canonical text is this often-viral video, from 2010. British TV presenter Holly Willoughby suggests that adding ham to mac-and-cheese might make it a “British carbonara”; the Italian chef Gino D’Acampo nearly falls over: “if my grandmother had wheels”, he exclaims, “she would have been a bike.”
D’Acampo, like many Italians, believes that carbonara consists of exactly these ingredients: guanciale, Roman pecorino cheese, eggs, and pepper. Swap any ingredient out and you no longer have carbonara, you have something else, and defending the purity of the recipe is supposed to be a matter of national significance. At stake is Italian identity, heritage, tradition.
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I’ll give away the ending: D’Acampo is defending a history that never existed. Carbonara is about as old as your parents, and the version we know and love – the one with guanciale – only became standard in the 1990s. The dish, like most of Italian cooking, basically didn’t exist before the Second World War. Like people everywhere, Italians before the war were less interested in recipe purity than they were in, well, not starving to death. That’s why, as the food historian Luca Cesari puts it, carbonara first emerged in 1944, when an Italian chef made it for US Army officers stationed in Riccione. They had better ingredients.
Pizza, too, at least as you know it, is a 20th century invention. Round discs of dough have long been baked throughout the Mediterranean (ever wonder why pizza and pita sound the same?), but the dish we are familiar with – with the tomato base and so forth – was unfamiliar to most Italians until after the war. That could be because pizza as we know it is more American than Italian. When American soldiers got to Italy in the early 40s, they wrote letters back to their families confused by the absence of pizzerias. The academic Alberto Grandi, profiled in this terrific FT piece, places the first-ever pizzeria not in Italy at all, but in New York, founded 1911.
While I’m at it, the cappuccino isn’t too much older, either. The Italians started using the word at the end of the 19th century – they’d appropriated an innovation coming out of Vienna. The Austrians had adopted coffee from the Ottomans to their south and added the new element of dairy – mostly in the form of cream. The new concoction, which added fat and sweetness to the bitter drink, also changed the colour. Coffee went from dark brown to light brown – light enough to resemble the brown robes of the Capuchin monks. The Kapuziner was born.
Still, that only meant a black coffee with a dollop of cream – not an espresso mixed with foamed milk. The cappuccino as we know it didn’t arrive until the 50s. Bialetti had invented his Moka Pot in 1933, but the espresso machine, and steamed milk with it, didn’t become standard until after the war. (The Moka Pot was named for the Yemeni city of Mocha – the port through which coffee was transported from Ethiopia. Bialetti used the Italian Futurist love for aluminium to popularise his product. As it happens, Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia two years later). That makes the modern cappuccino younger than your grandparents. In fact, this chronology is why Americans to this day prefer drip coffee to espresso. Italian-American immigration mostly occurred prior to the invention of the modern espresso machine (Italian-Australian immigration, on the other hand, occurred after its popularisation, which is how you get Australian cafe culture).
Of course, it wasn’t just Italian food that had to be invented, but Italy itself. The Kingdom of Italy finally came into being in 1861 – though “Italian” states continued to join up until the First World War. Along the way a process of Italianization was required – a process alternatively implicit and explicit that pressed regional states into assimilation with an Italian whole. Similar nation-creating processes occurred elsewhere throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The unification of Italy was no different, for our purposes, than the unification of Germany, or France, or China, or Indonesia, to take famous examples. In each of these cases hundreds of local cultures and dialects were forced to assimilate with a centralised bureaucracy and language, and all of a sudden something novel emerged – nascent political communities that needed common stories to hold themselves together.
So if I’m picking on Italy it’s only because it makes for a great case study. It’s not special. In the modern era none of us are free: the traditions we depend on are almost invariably invented, novel, and contrived. Every modern nation thinks its traditions ancient and organic, and every modern nation lies to itself.
To drive the point home, let’s give the Italians a break and go on a quick trip around the world. What we call “Traditional Chinese Medicine” is really a conglomeration of cultural-medicinal practices collated during the Maoist era as a way to provide low-cost healthcare to the masses. Mao didn’t particularly believe in or use TCM, but he needed to cheaply and quickly install a legible medical system that would reinforce an emerging national identity. The Scottish highland myth, similarly, had roots in real historical cultural practices, but the Tartanry we imagine today is largely the product of 19th century nation-building – and concerted tourism campaigns aimed at the English.
Let’s keep going. Much of the pomp and ceremony associated with the British parliament was created in the 19th century to convey an image of order and tradition. Zwarte Piet, a racist character in Dutch Christmas folklore, is often defended on the grounds of tradition, but appears to have been popularised by a book published in 1850. Pad Thai, commonly thought of as a traditional Thai dish, was actually invented in the 1930s as part of a nationalistic campaign to promote Thai cuisine. The qipao had roots in Qing-era fashion but became mainstream in the early 20th century, thanks to liberalising attitudes of dress caused by increasing contact with the West. If you eat sushi, you probably think that salmon has a long history in Japan. It does not. Salmon was introduced to Japan in the early 1900s but didn’t take off until the late 1980s, when a Norwegian salmon lobby delegation arrived in Tokyo to hawk their goods. A decade-long Norwegian advertising campaign did the rest. At the same time, Japanese advertising in the US was deliberately and artificially establishing the now decades-old tradition of lesbians driving Subarus. And don’t get me started on the ramen / lamian crossover. Meanwhile, if you are American and you think eating lobster is fancy, you don’t have much to go on, historically. European settlers found them so plentiful that they were mostly given to prisoners, and used as fertilizer. It took a popularisation campaign in the mid-19th century to increase their standing. So too with oysters, which were once so available they were considered a poor-person’s food. It took their over-fishing, and resulting scarcity, to drive demand up.
I could go on, but I won’t. I’m lazy and the point is made.
The function of tradition
If tradition were mere ceremony, it mightn’t matter that it’s so often fraudulent. But tradition performs a powerful role in modern societies. The historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose 1983 book The Invention of Tradition did more than any other to tackle this question, put it like so:
‘Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices….which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past.
So we find ourself in a world where fictitious traditions are invoked to enforce particular belief systems. These belief systems invariably happen to reflect the interests, and meet the needs, of those who invented the given tradition. And the ability to invent and imbed a given tradition is limited to groups with sufficient social power. Those that seek to conserve the status quo, or hark back to an imagined past, find tradition a particularly useful tool. Tradition is not neutral – it tips the playing field in favour of the right wing.
To make matters worse, traditions are susceptible to misuse and misappropriation well after they’ve served their original purpose. This is a familiar feature of reactionary politics – the reactionary appeals to a given tradition, to a suitable historic past, to legitimate their modern-day political project. Very often the reactionary will appeal to a past that transparently never existed – they’ll unashamedly invent new ones on the spot. But it’s the familiar ones that work best. The more a given tradition is accepted as true by the populace, the more reactionaries can exploit it for their particular political ends.
When, in 2019, the archbishop of Bologna suggested serving pork-free tortellini at the feast of San Petronio for the sake of Muslim Italians, the far-right panicked. “They’re trying to erase our history, our culture,” said Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party. Salvini was playing on the misconception that tortellini are traditionally made with pork. But that’s just another myth – tortellini were pork-free until the late 19th century.
It’s not just the reactionary right we should worry about. When I was in China in 2017-2018, the CCP machine was in full flight insisting that they were the inheritors of a 5000 year old Chinese political tradition. The actual history of the region – multiple distinct dynasties, centuries of regional warlords, mass immigration and emigration, scores of diverse linguistic and ethnic groups, the civil war and the near triumph of the Guomindang, occupations and concessions held by Japan; Germany; Italy; Russia; Portugal; the United Kingdom; and the United States; the Cultural Revolution – did not impede the government from propagating this fiction. The myth simply is too useful for the CCP – it legitimates them.
How does it legitimate? By establishing continuity with the past, the CCP becomes the natural and just inheritor of power in the region. It goes from a historically contingent political body that happened to win power from the lottery of history, to a necessary institution whose monopoly on violence is justified by 5000 years of cultural heritage.
(An aside - I’ve been emphasising the national, but we all know that the same process occurs at the local, and even hyper-local, level. As an undergrad college student at Sydney Uni, in what American readers might best understand as a fraternity environment, I saw firsthand how traditions a mere handful of years old could be created and then deployed to buttress violent, brutal hierarchies of social power. Bad!)
That’s probably enough for today. If I were writing a book about this, and I could, the next chapter would be about the inevitability of tradition. Tradition-forming practices are culture-forming practices. They appear to be inseparable from being human.
But in a world where traditions are routinely being invented, used, and misused, I think it’s incumbent on us to exercise a little skepticism. The risk, beyond equipping political enemies with tools I’d rather they didn’t have, is that these invented traditions come to imprison our minds. We find ourselves committed to falsities – pasts that never existed – and we do terrible things to defend them or bring them back. What we need instead is a skeptical ear for historical stories and a sense of historical contingency. History is the product of uncountable events that could well have gone differently. The future is not fated and the past is not a prison. We create the world we live in, and we can just as well create it differently.
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