The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


A national food magazine sponsored  a contest to decide who made the best roast beef in the country.  Naturally, there were thousands of hopeful gourmet chefs who submitted their recipes.  The staff of food experts read through each of these and then invited the five contestants whom they felt had the most original ideas to come to their test kitchen and prepare their entry.  After sampling each, the award went to one Shirley Simpson.  Mrs. Simpson received a ten thousand dollar cash prize and she and her family were treated to an all expense-paid one week vacation at a beautiful resort.

When the family returned home, Mrs. Simpson was doing some work around the house.  The phone rang and it was Meg, the woman at the magazine who had organized the contest.  She said, “You know, Shirley – we were thinking.  We would like to do a video of you preparing your fabulous roast beef in your home.  Who knows, this might even lead to your own cooking show.”  Needless to say Shirley was very excited at this idea.  She couldn’t wait for her husband to come home to tell him.

So several weeks later Meg and her film crew came to the Simpson house.  Shirley had purchased her usual six pound piece of beef, had laid out all the ingredients for her marinade and started preparing her award-winning recipe.  After the beef had marinated for its appropriate time (they used time lapse photography), she took a large knife and sliced approximately one third off the piece of meat, laying it next to the larger piece in her roasting pan.

At that point Meg asked, “Alright – now tell me why it is that you cut the roast before cooking it.”

Shirley said, “That’s the way my mother taught me how to make it.”

Meg said, “It’s too bad we can’t ask your mother why she did that.”

“Oh, you can,” Shirley responded. “She lives with us and in fact I hear her car pulling up in the driveway right now.”

So Shirley’s mom, Laura came in and Meg asked her why she cut her roast beef before it was cooked.

Laura said, “That’s the way my mother taught me to make it.”

This, of course, frustrated Meg who said, “I would love to get to the bottom of this.  It’s a pity we can’t find out by speaking with your grandmother, Shirley.”

“Oh, you can.  Grandma Pat lives with us – only in the guest house.  I know she’s home and we can go over and ask her.”

So the entourage left the Simpson’s kitchen and went around to the lovely little cottage in the back where Grandma Pat lived.

She opened the door and Meg explained why they were there.  “Please, Grandma Pat tell us why you slice your beef into two pieces before you cook it.”

Grandma Pat said, “Well that’s very simple.  My late husband loved nothing more than a good piece of roast beef and some Yorkshire pudding.  He liked it hot – but even more he enjoyed it cold the next day or even after if there was anything left.  He was English you know.  So he would ask me to buy a large piece of meat so that he could savor it for several days.  The only problem was that we lived in a very small flat which had a very small stove – and cutting it to make it fit a very small roasting pan was the only way I could get it in the oven.”

Ah, tradition.  Throwing salt over your shoulder if you spilled some; avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk lest you cause your mother to seek the care of a chiropractor;  avoiding the path of a black cat if one should be in front of you; knocking on wood; not walking under stepladders.  Well the list goes on and on.

Some of the things that we do traditionally are no doubt born of superstition.  But as our story points out, others have a solid and practical basis underlying them – although we may have forgotten what that originally was.

Tradition serves a purpose.  It gives us the opportunity to respond in a certain way – a way which most of the rest of us understand.  I have never had anyone ask me when I said, “God bless you” in response to another person’s sneeze, the reason  I made that statement.  Tradition is an anchor in a world of turmoil.  It helps bind us together and let’s us feel connected.

The alternative to following tradition is abandoning it in favor of something we think better – namely change.  Those who nihilistically want to ditch all the traditions of yore make the assumption that whatever we do, as long as it isn’t traditional, will be an improvement.  How sad and empty their lives must be – and how uncertain they must feel.

Before specific traditions became that, no doubt our ancestors had others to which they held but which later fell by the wayside.  Not everything which might become a tradition later actually survived the test of time and usefulness.  And so it will be with the changes that those who insist on abandoning the past will implement.

Tradition and history are inextricably linked.  By definition, a tradition began at some past time in history and is perpetuated in the present.    And during man’s brief, almost negligible history, we should have learned the lessons it can teach us if we are willing to look and to listen.

Of course, those who propose we should go down the path of change, perhaps merely for the sake of change usually miss one important point in their dialectic.  That is that if we change something, we are required almost immediately to change it further lest it start taking on the vestiges of a tradition.   As for me, that’s a little too frenetic.

I know it might be old-fashioned but I think I’m going to hold on to some of my traditions – and hold on to them tight.

And now I’ve got to go.  I’m making roast beef for dinner.


Comments on: "ON TRADITION" (5)

  1. I enjoyed this post and I agree with you… up to a point. Tradition AND Change BOTH have their place. Doing something for the sake of tradition when there is a better way is just stubborn and backwards thinking; likewise doing something just because it is new or different is just being contrary. I believe in the pragmatic approach; if it can be improved or made more efficient(by a large margin), then it should be done even if it’s not “the way it’s always been done.” However, if a change is not an improvement, then why should tradition be thrown to the side?

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. If you’ve read many of my posts there is an underlying theme to them; namely, that applying common sense is the most effective way to approach most issues. Neither blindly holding to things from the past nor vapidly endorsing untested new solutions without considering the possible consequences meets the standard of “common sense”.

      If I were to err on one side it would be toward that of tradition. The reason, it provides a known (if not always best) result. And we know from umpteen management studies that the most important attribute that people look for in their employers is consistency. The same is true in family settings as well.

      One significant reason that small businesses are not hiring and few are being created is no one understands (including those who crafted them) the implications and possible costs associated either with Dodd/Frank or the President’s Healthcare Bill. We have two voluminous laws on the books but the details have yet to be worked out. The result coming from these changes have now resulted in our having a “tradition” of an unemployment rate of 8.2%.

      Thank you for your thoughts and the time you took to comment. I appreciate both.

  2. Yes traditions and folkways are there because past generations found many of them bought with them the sense of belonging to something and the comfort of knowing where they stood in society. Sometimes traditions need to be scrapped in the interests of a better society, for example, marrying off a girl at the tender age of 9-12. But change for the sake of change is sometimes catastrophic. Remember Pol Pot of Cambodia thought he had a better system to offer, and in the process murdered millions of his fellow countrymen.

    • As man is imperfect – so our solutions reflect what we have become and who we are.

      Each of us needs to find his or her own path – and in so doing, we can truly find peace wtih ourselves and ultimately transform the world.

  3. This was such a joy to read that I didn’t even see the lesson coming. But when it did – wow! Just as I was thinking how little sense it made to blindly follow tradition, you brought up a point that made clear sense. Namely, that we’ve (and by ‘we,’ I mean the majority of our politicians & people like them) done away with some of the most valuable traditions in favor of what we consider modernization (or whatever). Traditions like FairPlay, Good Samaritan-ship (if that’s a word), honesty, empathy, open communication, etc. These are all traditions that our leaders of the past at least tried to follow with an eye to our well-being, right?

    This post leads me to go think about what traditions I’ve thrown over my own shoulder like so much salt…

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