This month, UNESCO is expected to designate for the first time one or more of the world's culinary traditions as an "intangible cultural heritage." The cultural 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 the 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 Michoacan. If UNESCO finally gives food the official heritage nod, it's likely that other organizations will follow its lead and make their own designations.
Should we cheer? Perhaps. It's good to see credit going to cooks who imbue a place with its identity, to make explicit what we all know — that cuisine is more than just ingredients and processes protected by denominations of origin; it's the totality of the eating tradition. And if recognition boosts tourism, which is what the heritage industry is all about, then that's good too.
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.
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 (developer of the balanced ration for soldiers in World War II, named K-rations in his honor), who published a book with his wife, Margaret, titled "How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way."
A similar process 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 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.
In the Roman Empire, people 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 have electric mills and instant mixes relieved women of this drudgery. Mexican women agree with critics who protest that the tortillas do not taste as good. But 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 their children can stay in school. Why should they be denied that option? Let's record and remember their labor, not preserve it.
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 seem to be picked by lobbying groups. They apparently choose the projects, get permission 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 a committee in Paris chosen from member states, expert or not in culinary matters, judges the proposal. In a recent article, the Economist 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.
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. 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 writer based in Mexico City and a contributor to ZesterDaily.com, where a longer version of this appears.