by Patricia Lightfoot

A few years ago when visiting Warsaw, I went to the ethnographic museum. As I noted in my journal at the time, there was a fascinating exhibit of the ritual year in Poland, including some extraordinary mummers’ costumes (see photo above) worn during Carnival and at Easter. There were painted eggs, elaborate straw headdresses worn to celebrate the harvest, bowls for divination on St. Andrew’s Day and myriad nativity scenes. Such richness made me feel as if I had grown up in a cultural wasteland.

Another display featured a short piece of footage from a film that showed what appeared to be a farming family of modest means, maybe in the early twentieth century, being served a meal by a young woman. The young woman placed a bowl of soup and a metal spoon in front of each member of the family. The dialogue was in Polish, so I did not understand what was being said, but it was very clear what happened next. As the family tasted the soup, unaccustomed to using metal spoons, they burned their mouths. The father reacted angrily. Shouting at the young woman, he threw his metal spoon across the table, picked up a wooden spoon and ordered the rest of the family to do the same.

I wondered why this piece of film was included in an exhibit of ethnography. Was there a greater significance to this particular incident beyond a move from wooden to metal spoons? Maybe the film illustrated the loss of tradition, as a once-rural economy underwent industrialization? It also occurred to me that the young woman’s role might point to social change through the emancipation of women and the challenge to traditional life of new ideas. Due to my linguistic deficiencies, this has remained a mystery.