Breaking with Tradition

Posted Jul 19 2010, 12:33 am

It had to be ninety-two degrees in the shade today when I got a craving for some good old-fashioned spaghetti sauce.  I’d spent a few hours after lunch writing a scene in which my MC, a former juvenile delinquent, describes the difference between his mom’s cooking and the food served in The Hall and set my stomach rumbling.

Being of Italian descent, I cannot make spaghetti sauce  – under any circumstances – from a jar.  Forget rolling over in their graves. My grandparents would HAUNT me!  I make it from… well, let’s call it semi-scratch. I don’t pick my own tomatoes off vines. I use the canned stuff.  So, I spent a few hours rolling and browning meatballs (that’s “meta-balls” for Beth and Sean!), then seasoning the sauce, setting it to simmer.  When we finally sat down to eat dinner, it was almost seven o’clock and my oldest sniffed at the pot and asked, “Did you put raisins in here?”

Raisins-in-the-meatballs is a tradition I learned from my maternal grandmother, who learned it from her mother-in-law, who likely carried it over the ocean from Europe.  I don’t know any other Italians who make meatballs this way. It probably began as a regional favorite with expensive pignolia nuts.  (ha ha. Look, Tawna! I said “nuts”!) At some point over the last hundred years or so, my ancestors tinkered with the old recipe, substituting expensive ingredients for cheaper ones, and let their tastes determine what stays and what goes.

I’ve done this with another tradition, Rainbow Cookies.

Rainbow Cookies are sometimes called Venetians and are really more like tiny cakes than cookies. You see these in bakeries all the time… tiny squares of red, yellow, and green cake, smothered in chocolate.  My mother and I used to bake dozens of these cookies every Christmas. When I started baking them by myself, I substituted almond filling for the almond paste in the recipe. Judging by the number of compliments and requests I get every year for these cookies, nobody misses the almond paste.  The decision to make this ingredient switch was basic – I couldn’t find paste, but found plenty of filling.

It never occurred to me that tradition demanded no deviations from the original, or that dozens of my relatives might be insulted by my audacity. I let my tastes make the decision and I like the softer, moister result better than the original.

It appears that the raisin tradition will end with my generation because my family DESPISES raisins in their meatballs.  At my son’s question, I was winding up to make the usual heritage is important speech when something stopped me, though I’m not sure what. I think it’s because I’m always hoping that my boys will do their own tinkering and come up with something fantastic.  I’m grateful for whatever it was that made me remain quiet, though. Instead, I considered why tradition and heritage are so important. They show us where we come from, where we’ve been.  But the freedom – and courage! – to blaze new trails is important, too. They not only show us where we can go, but take us there.

As I (re)considered this, it reminded me of something I’ve read a few dozen times now… there are no new plots, just variations on existing ones.  Where would we be if Lucas had never taken the age-old Good vs. Evil plot and added his intergalactic spin? The Star Wars Trilogy comprised my adolescence.  I can’t imagine what kids my age would have done, played, and imagined without Star Wars to influence us. What if Rowling hadn’t taken that same old plot and added her magic? Harry Potter is the Star Wars of my sons’ generation.

I had a few idea seeds for new novels that I wrote down and tossed in a drawer because I thought they were too cliched. But now I think I was too mired in tradition to give them proper consideration.

Turns out, my son’s failure to embrace the raisin made for one hell of an epiphany.

Consider your own traditions…  culinary or fictional. Where can you turn tradition on its head and come up with something exciting?



7 responses to “Breaking with Tradition”

  1. KD Easley says:

    Wow, nice post. Thanks.

  2. Jeannie says:

    What you’ve said here is so true! A writer friend of mine said publishers always say they want something fresh and new, but what they want is the tried and true served up a new way.

    Thanks for letting us see your heritage, as a fellow Italian I know all about traditions, but raisins in the meatballs? Never heard of that!

    • Patty says:

      See!??? I get this all the time. Who knows, maybe it’s not even an Italian recipe at all… Thanks for commenting.

  3. I think my husband would divorce me if I put raisins in the meatballs. lol

    Great post, Patty. :)

    • Patty says:

      Thanks, Michelle.

      The raisins plump and sweeten when they’re cooked but still, nobody can get past the fact that they’re well, raisins. I love them. I can’t even say it’s all in how you’re raised because I cooked this way all my life and still, my kids think I’m insane.

  4. Now I want some spaghetti sauce. I have never tried the raisins, but I have nutmeg and cocoa to my sauce before. Surprisingly it does make a difference.

    Like you I enjoy tinkering with a recipe and seeing where they take me. If I do attempt the raisins I promise to let you know how that goes.