This I Know: Tradition 

American asks five wonks to weigh in on a single topic 

Illustra­tion by
Traci Daberko

Illustrations of Russian dolls, pizzelles, a blindfolded woman, and the bust of a philosopher


When I do an oral history interview, I listen for traditions: national, neighborhood, family, and personal. Each of these gives meaning to and informs a person’s life in important ways.

Listening to someone describe a significant holiday, an inside joke, or a secret family recipe is a sacred experience that gives me a glimpse into what makes them unique. They are also not just talking about themselves, but giving voice to their ancestors, friends, and community members who passed down this intimate knowledge and who have helped shape the person I am interviewing.

In turn, this person adapts these traditions into practices and beliefs that resonate most with them. They mold traditions into something useful and meaningful that they can then pass on to someone else. By listening to these stories, I see the strands of culture and knowledge connecting people across time and place, and where this individual fits in. I also witness individuals bending and shaping their traditions, bringing them new life and relevance.

Kaplan is a consulting oral historian and program manager with the DC Oral History Collaborative.


When you’re Italian, it seems that every tradition revolves around food. As an Italian American, holidays mean integrating Italian flavors into American meals.

Easter feasts feature ham, lasagna, and a licorice-flavored sweet bread. The Thanksgiving dinner table is anchored by turkey and mashed potatoes, with rigatoni on the side. When my grandmother was living, Christmas Eve was marked by the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. We don’t make all seven anymore, but we do serve shrimp cocktail and lobster macaroni and cheese as a nod to our culinary heritage.

Since 2013, I have hosted Christmas Day at my home. I start baking two weeks beforehand to have enough cookies for our more than 20 visiting family and friends.

My sister, Renee, and I cook for two days before the big holiday to accommodate everyone’s appetite, and we still make my grandmother’s signature tomato sauce and Italian specialty cookies like pizzelles. Our food traditions, especially during the holidays, connect us to our past and preserve that sense of comfort and nostalgia.

Cafaro is the former minority leader of the Ohio Senate.


Tradition is a bind—literally, and with both the positive and negative elements binding connotes.

One etymology for the Latin religio—the origin of our modern word “religion”—is to “re-tie” or “bind again.” Our religious traditions connect us to family, place, spiritual understanding, or the divine itself. But these same traditions can also constrain us, perhaps limiting our ability to appreciate diversity, complexity, or otherness.

The trick is to know when to bind ourselves to the customs, beliefs, and traditions of those who preceded us, and when to loosen those binds. Letting go of old ways can be scary—or liberating. How do we know what to do?

The same-sex marriage debate in the US exemplified this question. Opponents feared the transformation of a traditional institution or the violation of a divinely-sanctioned relationship. Maybe what they failed to notice was that proponents of same-sex marriage didn’t want to destroy a tradition, they wanted more of it. The extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples—like the rejection of racist anti-miscegenation laws—means more people are bound together by tradition.

Oliver is the director of the Arab World Studies Program.


How do we deal with thinkers and writers whose ideas are central to the traditions that have shaped our world, but who also held views that are abhorrent by our current standards?

In recent years, this question has led us to reexamine relatively modern historical figures, such as leaders of the Confederacy or those who engaged in or benefitted from the Atlantic slave trade. Condemnation in those cases is relatively simple, but what about figures from a much older time whose works aredeeply ingrained in our world?

Plato, the father of Western philosophy and spirituality, argued in The Republic in favor of a state-controlled eugenics policy that closely monitored reproduction. Aristotle, Plato’s student and another cornerstone of Western (and Islamic) thought and science, found slavery a condition “natural” to those trapped in the trauma of that oppression.

Do we absolve them because they lived such a long time ago, virtually in a different world? Or should we hold these men, capable of such great thought, to today’s higher standards? If so, what does this mean for our traditions in the Western world?

Davies teaches Western legal tradition in the Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology.


Even before entering the professional culinary world, I spent a great deal of time thinking about the significance of food traditions. I grew up in Hawaii, where people of many cultures arrived, frequently as workers on sugar and pineapple plantations. Each group brought with them food traditions that often served as their last connection to home. Over time, these foods began to merge with and layer onto native Hawaiian foods. These are the foods I grew up with and eating them brings me a palpable sense of warmth and comfort.

My wife is from the Deep South, a region with a similarly vast number of food influences. I wanted to learn more about them to help me learn about her. Whenever I could, I stood at the stove cooking with her mother, aunt, and grandmother. We’ve sadly lost all three women, and my lasting connection to them is their recipes—some in notebooks, others on index cards, all with faded script, a list of ingredients and frustratingly imprecise instructions. 

Every time we gather around a table, our food traditions merge and grow as part of a never-ending—and delicious—cycle.

Raffa is chief of culinary operations and executive chef at ThinkFoodGroup.