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Is ‘Culinary Heritage’ a Good Idea?

rachel laudan

This month, it seems likely that UNESCO will announce that for the first time it is designating one or more of the world’s culinary traditions an Intangible Cultural Heritage. This category, established in 2003 as a supplement to the better-known category of Tangible Heritage (castles, cities, landscapes), was created to protect traditions in the developing world by encouraging tourism. Already tango, Croatian lace making and Sardinian pastoral songs have been chosen.

This year the leading culinary contenders, both repeat applicants, appear to be Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco for the Mediterranean Diet, and Mexico for the indigenous cuisine of certain villages in the state of Michoacán. If UNESCO finally gives food the official heritage nod, it’s likely that others will soon follow. Already in Britain, the National Trust is launching a campaign to preserve traditional British tastes and the European Network of Regional Culinary Heritage has a few dozen members, mainly in Scandinavia, Germany and East Europe.

Should we cheer? Perhaps. It good to see credit going to cooks who imbue a place with its identity as much as its stonemasons or architects. About time, too, to make explicit what we all know: cuisine is more than just ingredients and processes protected by denominations of origin. However fresh and local the fruits and vegetables, however finely crafted the cheese or wine, it’s the totality of the eating tradition that counts. And if recognition of culinary traditions by some official body boosts tourism, which is what the heritage industry is all about, then that’s good too.

Indeed at first blush, the UNESCO project for culinary heritage seems so self-evidently a good thing that only a grinch could grumble. On closer examination, though, it’s plagued with problems, not the least of which is the very possibility of preserving cuisines.

Culinary traditions change

Take the cuisines of the Mediterranean. In prehistory, these were based on barley bread and porridge. In the Roman Empire, the cuisine changed to one based on wheat bread, fish sauce, and salted meats and cheeses. With the spread of Christianity and Islam, the cuisines north and south of the sea diverged, with Christians emphasizing pork, lard and fish, and Muslims eschewing pork and wine and favoring sheep fat. In the 18th century, tomatoes began creeping into the diet and low-acid olive oil became popular among the upper classes. A century later, new national cuisines were created as Italy was unified and the Ottoman Empire broke up. That there was something called a “Mediterranean Diet” that unified these changing, competing cuisines was given currency only in 1975. Its originator was an American scientist, Ancel Keys (inventor of a balanced ration for soldiers in World War II named K-rations in his honor), who published a book with his wife Margaret, “How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way.”

Much the same applies to the corn, beans and chilies that the Conservatorio de la Cultura Gastronómica Mexicana, the group promoting Mexican cuisine to UNESCO, identifies as the unchanging foundations of Mexican cuisine from its pre-Hispanic past. Yet the people in the territory that is now Mexico have been eating bread, noodles (fideos) and rice for about 500 years, and their signature dish — mole — has roots in the Islamic cuisine of medieval Spain. To exclude these contributions to Mexican culinary heritage is to write out much of the country’s history and many of its people. To try to freeze the cuisines in time is like commanding the tide to stand still.

Even if it were possible to stem the tide of culinary change, it’s not clear it would be desirable. People change their diets for good reasons, including access to new ingredients and technologies, the appeal of variety, and improved nutrition.

Unintended consequences of preserving culinary tradition

In the Roman Empire they shifted from barley to wheat because they preferred raised bread to barley bannocks. Centuries later, tomatoes and dried pasta opened up a world of quick sauces and a delicious, near-instant staple with a long shelf life. New techniques make kitchen life less laborious as well. Grinding wet corn for tortillas the traditional way — on the knees, pushing stone across stone — was five hours of exhausting, arthritis-inducing hard labor for Mexican village women. Only in recent generations has the invention of electric mills and instant mixes relieved women of this drudgery. When replying to critics who protest that the tortillas do not taste as good, Mexican women agree. The choice is worth it, they argue, because they can spend more time with their children, make crafts for sale, or take a job so that their children can stay in school. Why should they be denied that option? Let’s record and remember their labor, not preserve it.

Selection process for UNESCO project unclear

Compounding the problems of viability and desirability that dog the UNESCO project is the fog that obscures how culinary traditions are to be selected, adjudicated, administered and monitored. Candidates for intangible heritage designation seem to be picked by lobby groups, often already familiar with UNESCO procedures. It is they who apparently choose the projects, get permissions from the chosen community and endorsements from their national governments, and then deliver the paperwork to UNESCO. Who funds this and why is obscure.

Then, off in Paris, a committee chosen from a complex rotation of member states, expert or not in culinary matters, judges the proposal. The Economist in a recent critical article called for the annual meetings of the older World Heritage program, including the proposals and the constitution of the committee, to be thrown open to the public. Surely this should apply to the Intangible Heritage program as well. Totally unclear from the UNESCO web pages are how designated projects are to be administered and who monitors them to assure that standards are maintained.

So what seems at first to be a careful selection of some of the world’s greatest culinary traditions turns out on inspection to be a process of dubious intellectual worth, clouded and probably politicized decision-making, and poised to become marshaled in support of a knee-jerk nationalism. As David Lowenthal, author of one of the foundational studies of cultural heritage, “The Past is a Foreign Country,” has made clear, the safeguarding of heritage is a two-edged sword. It can, at its best, encourage local pride and cooperation as well as drawing tourists to an unforgettable experience. All too easily, though, it can become an end in itself, blocking the change that keeps societies alive and making second class citizens of minorities, migrants and others who do not share the heritage.

UNESCO’s program is just the latest in a series of efforts to give form and shape to a pervasive culinary nostalgia, the disquieting feeling that somewhere, sometime food was better, tastier, more natural and more healthful, that there was a Mediterranean diet or a Mexican cuisine untarnished by migrants, industrialism and change. Like “authentic,” “terroir,” “slow” and “local,” all used to try to pin down our yearnings, each catching the mood of the moment, culinary tradition as intangible heritage turns out upon examination to be not quite up to the job demanded of it.

Rachel Laudan is a historian and freelance writer based in Mexico City. Her book, “The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary History” earned her the Julia Child/Jane Grigson Prize from the International Assn. of Culinary Professionals. She is currently completing a book on the history of the world’s cuisines which will be published in 2011 by the University of California Press.