Disappearing Woks

As some of you might now I lead an online cooking group called Wok Wednesdays. You can learn more about the group in a previous post, but one of the many gifts I've received from this group (both physical and experiential) has been learning about the Cen brothers and owning one of their handmade woks.

The Cen brothers are from Shanghai. They practice the craft of hand-hammering woks that was passed down from their father, and presumably his before him. Their story is a classic tale of progress versus tradition, and like in much of China, progress in the name of "modernity" seems to have won out. The Cen brothers have closed up shop.

A seasoned Cen wok (left) and brand-new one (right). Photo: Grace Young

A seasoned Cen wok (left) and brand-new one (right). Photo: Grace Young

Some background on the Cen brothers from my friend and cookbook author Grace Young:

For some people the very idea of progress means leaving behind everything old and ushering in the new. Why own a rotary phone when you can have a cordless? Why make biscuits from scratch when they come in handy little tubes, ready to bake? Why do the back-breaking, noisy work of hand-hammering woks when modern machines can stamp out dozens in mere minutes?

It's easy to dismiss the yearning for "the old ways" as pure nostalgia, but for me its more than that. I travel the world on modern jet planes, have a car that can basically speak to me, and never leave home without my iPhone, so I'm no stranger to the benefits of progress. I can marry who I love, I can take medicine when I'm sick, and I don't have to worry about my African-American friends not being allowed to dine at the same table as me. Progress is good. 

Owning a rotary phone would annoy the crap out of me these days.

However, progress at the expense of art saddens me. Making food from scratch is an art, it feeds my soul as much as it feeds my body. 

What Mr. Cen and his brother do is an art form. It's a time-honored tradition of making a beautiful piece of equipment that literally sustains life. Each of their woks has soul, has history, has a story. You can't get that from a machine-stamped piece of carbon steel. 

What do we lose when we prioritize progress over tradition and art? What should be saved and what should be tossed aside? Is my idea of progress endangering someone else's livelihood, or language, or art? I don't have the answers to these questions right now, and I'm not sure if I ever will. 

I recently came across a video produced for Lucky Peach and entitled "The Sound of Wok". Imagine my surprise to find the Cen brothers as some of the subjects of this beautiful video about progress and loss. I'll end this post here, but please leave a comment with your thoughts on progress and what we lose when move too fast, or indeed if what we gain is even more important.