culinary conservatism, part II

The theologian Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” The idea of “tradition” is a central one in the kind of conservatism that I am most drawn to — the kind that moves from Burke through Kirk — but it is a vexed notion. To use Pelikan’s language, one man’s tradition is another man’s traditionalism. Did Russell Kirk’s cultural proposals amount to a vibrant conserving of the best of the past, adapted to the modern world, or did they amount to little more than nostalgia? Was Kirk’s attachment to what he called his “ancestral homeland” in Michigan an admirable model of cultivated tradition, or, in this young country, a kind of faux-aristocratic posing?

Alasdair MacIntyre thinks that Burke himself had succumbed to a rigid traditionalism, adhering mindlessly and unquestioningly to an idealized past — which just goes to show that MacIntyre has not read Burke well, or at all. But MacIntyre rightly demonstrates (primarily in his 1988 book Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) that this moribund traditionalism is one of the twin dangers facing any Burkean conservatism. The other is the maintaining of a merely nominal connection with one’s tradition, using its language perhaps but losing sight of its core principles.

Each of these dangers confronts the conservative impulse when it encounters the new. But if those are the dangers, what are the possibilities? This is where it pays to reflect on the cooking of Frank Stitt, whose restaurant Highlands I described in my first post on this subject. Stitt is an Alabama boy whose encounter with French and particularly Provençal cuisine did not cause him to abandon the food of his childhood in favor of the new and exciting Continental alternative, nor to reject this new world to which he had been exposed and simply “return to his roots.” Instead, he saw this encounter with very different culinary traditions as an opportunity to renew his own tradition of cooking and eating. He saw that there are certain analogies between the country cooking of Provence and the country cooking of Alabama; he came to believe that if a great tradition of cuisine could come out of the one, similar possibilities might lie in store for the other. He discerned in Provençal and French techniques opportunities for taking what his own Southern culture already did and helping it to do those things better. So when I eat fried green tomatoes at Highlands I am simultaneously connected to highly developed Continental ways of cooking and presenting food and to my Alabama childhood.

This is of course just what Rémy does for Anton Ego in Ratatouille. (And I would also suggest that this is what Brad Bird himself does in his movies, but that’s a story for another day.)

I understand this kind of culinary art as profoundly conservative in this sense: you love and respect a particular tradition so much that you eagerly embrace ideas that are alien and new if those ideas help your home tradition to become a better version of itself. And I also take my reflections in this post to be complementary to, yet distinct from, the essay by John Schwenkler that set me on this path of thought. John is concerned with certain practices of food making and consuming that follow from conservative commitments; I am more concerned here with habits of thought. But surely the two are necessary complements to each other.

As I have suggested, these habits of thought require a kind of analogical imagination: you have to be able to see something in the alien and new that echoes or resonates with what you know. Frank Stitt has this kind of imagination; many of my favorite artists do. And anyone who thinks this kind of culture-making worthwhile should try to think analogically as well: what would that kind of thing look like in my work? A difficult but necessary task: as Douglas Hofstadter likes to say, “Analogy is the motor of the car of thought.” And analogical thinking is especially necessary to a healthy conservatism, a healthy sense of tradition.