I’m supposed to know something about culinary heritage.   Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage is the subtitle of the book I published in the 1990s on the extraordinary foods of the Islands.  I’d like to say that I had pondered long and hard over the title. The truth is that “culinary heritage” just sounded better than alternatives such as culinary history or (worse) the history of Hawaii’s food.

And next month I am slated to give a keynote address on culinary heritage during Panama Gastronomica, in Panama City in front of chefs from across Latin America (a great-sounding conference, by the way).

So I’ve been trying to get my thoughts about culinary heritage in order. By sheer good luck Gloria Lopez Morales gave a presentation a couple of weeks ago to the monthly Seminario de Alimentacion of the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas at the UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico), Mexico’s premier university. For years she worked for UNESCO, helping to develop the intangible cultural heritage program.  And for the past half dozen years, she has spear headed the effort to have Mexican cuisine declared an intangible cultural heritage.

To anticipate, I have problems with her analysis of culinary heritage and I’ll come to those in another post.  The talk, though, was a great way to jump start my thinking. Gloria Lopez is a splendid presenter, crisp, informed, and to the point. She has thought long and hard about culinary heritage.  And I was fascinated by the way she laid out her case.  Nothing woolly or misty eyed here.  She had two main points.

1.  Intangible cultural heritage is designed to induce economic development, particularly tourism.

She described how she was with UNESCO in Cuba in the 1980s when the economy was at a particularly low state.  That, and the fact that income from tourism formed the largest part of GNP in a significant number of the world’s countries, made her and other officials at UNESCO rethink the idea that development depended on material resources such minerals or agricultural land.  Economic development could also follow from promoting a country’s cultural heritage.

At first this meant identifying important buildings or groups of buildings or natural features (Havana, Guanajuato where I used to live, Yosemite etc.).  These “patrimonios de la humanidad” don’t seem to me to have a huge amount of visibility in the United States but they certainly do in Mexico and many other countries. I’ve never seen any figures on whether they increase tourism but clearly they are widely believed to do so.

Next step.  Tourists don’t want just monuments, natural or manmade, they want experiences.  Hence UNESCO decided to set up this other category of immaterial cultural heritage.  Gloria Lopez repeated several times that the culture in question was not to be limited to (or perhaps not even to include) European-style high culture, Goethe being one example she gave.  It was to emphasize dance, folk art, and even cuisine.  Here’s a list of already-approved immaterial heritages at the UNESCO site where tango jostles with vedic chanting and Chinese paper-cut.

Mexico wants to include cuisine.  (So too does France).  One proposal was submitted in  2005 but not accepted at the time. Here’s an account in Spanish of the 2005 round. There’s another proposal under consideration at this very moment.

2. What is being submitted as Mexico’s culinary heritage is a tradition said to stretch back 3000 years of dishes based on maize, beans and chiles, as exemplified by the rural cuisine of Michoacan.  Words such as old, authentic, community-based kept cropping up.  Gloria Lopez did not distribute the written proposal but she did show the ten-minute video prepared for UNESCO.  It was professional production and for me a side of Mexico that I have seen only in books and magazines, although I have lived here for fifteen years.  Lots of native costumes, lots of rituals, lots and lots of brilliant color, lots of dancing.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over her two points (1) that the point of preserving or promoting culinary heritage is to increase tourism  and (2) that culinary heritage should be conceived as identifying the oldest cuisine of the area, the cuisine of the peasants, the cuisine supported by small scale agriculture.  I understand that Gloria Lopez was working within the constraints of UNESCO rules.

I however am not.  And thus I think it worth considering other reasons for taking culinary heritage seriously and other ways of conceiving culinary heritage.   I’ll post my thoughts soon and would love reactions.

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