Humans have a prodigious ability to create and destroy. The very concept of culture ( big C or little c) is something that we are continuously developing and eliminating. So traditions exist as a process; we continually reshape them even as we celebrate them. I’ll have to beg the reader’s forgiveness; although I no longer work as an anthropologist, I’ll never shake the orientation.
Family traditions offer a look into the processes of development and loss. In October of 2023, I’ll initiate the 50th anniversary of the Carreras family fruitcakes. Were fruitcakes a Carreras family tradition before then? Nope. And I honestly do not remember why I settled on making fruitcakes that fall fifty years ago. But every fall since I start on the family fruitcakes – which after baking, settle in for a long rum-soaked gestation before being shipped off for family eating during Christmas.
I was looking for something to replace my grandmother’s Poppyseed bread. Grandma had died years before without leaving a recipe and without taking apprentices. So her tradition, dating back generations in her family, effectively died with her.
Replace a traditional Hungarian treat with fruitcake? As a family, we tried to duplicate her recipe without luck. She had always been elusive on her secrets, a sort of “pinch of this, a pinch of that” description of the process that guaranteed it could not be duplicated. So as a family, we eventually threw in the towel on reproducing it. A family tradition lost.
That was where we were the year I first made my rum-soaked fruitcakes. The first year I only made two; one for myself and my wife and one for my parents. Things evolved. Over the years, the recipe evolved; ingredients were added, quantities changed, and the rum-soaking technique matured. Eventually, I reached about twenty cakes and distributed fruit cakes in early December to any family member who appreciated them. There is a bit of drudgery involved in making that many. but commitment is part of tradition.
At fifty years, I can look back and see how the tradition started, developed, and is being passed on. A few years ago, my oldest son apprenticed, transcribed the recipe, and can now make the cakes. I fully expect that, over time, his cakes will vary from the ones I made. That’s part of what makes traditions alive; they change and develop while staying steady parts of our expectations in life.
About seven years ago, I was able to replicate grandma’s Poppyseed bread. I now bake this for the family at Christmas time and tell the story about how she rewarded and punished family members by giving them loaves with more or less filling. After all, it’s not only the food that makes the tradition; it’s the telling of the stories surrounding it.
Families are microcosms of culture, and family traditions connect members across generations leading back to the past and forward to the future.