Summer solstice fire festivals in the Pyrenees. Korean tightrope-walking. Solving math equations on a traditional Chinese abacus… and the Mediterranean diet? The olive-oil-abundant way of eating may seem like an outlier here, but all these things share one common attribute: They’re recognized by UNESCO as cultural treasures worth preserving for future generations.
A number of countries have made headlines recently for seeking UNESCO status for iconic native foodstuffs. South Korea is seeking designation for its kimchi, Spain wants its tapas tradition recognized, and Italy is vying to get the art of Neapolitan pizza-making a spot on the list. But why? Boasting that one of your nation’s prized foods was granted UNESCO heritage status certainly sounds impressive, but other than a fancy title (and the resulting media coverage), what is it and how does it actually benefit these culinary traditions — if at all?
First, a brief primer on UNESCO. The United Nations includes dozens of specialized agencies — the best-known of which include the World Health Organization and the International Monetary Fund — but the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization is the only one concerned with culture. Established just after World War II, the agency’s self-stated mission is "to encourage the identification, protection, and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity." It was founded on the idea that long-lasting peace can’t be kept solely on the backs of economic and political agreements; for nations to get along, they must seek to understand and appreciate one another’s cultures. Today, with 195 member states, UNESCO is considered the leading forum for global diplomacy on cultural diversity.
The organization’s best-known endeavor is its list of World Heritage Sites: think the Florida Everglades, China’s imperial tombs of the Ming Dynasty, and Paris’s hallowed Notre Dame Cathedral, just to name a few of the 1,000-plus sites. Many travelers treat the list as a guide to the world’s must-see places, and sites often see major spikes in tourism as a result of being added to the list.
But beyond ancient ruins and natural wonders, UNESCO also recognizes what it refers to as "Intangible Cultural Heritage": that is, immaterial things that you can’t necessarily reach out and touch but that are vital to culture all the same, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, and skills — and, beginning in 2010, foodways.
The first nation to have a food tradition inscribed on the Intangible Heritage list was France. Despite its global reputation for pioneering haute cuisine, France’s culinary cachet has been on the decline for decades, with fast-food chains rapidly expanding their footprints across the country and its top chefs losing ground to Spain’s forward-thinking gastronomic ambassadors like Ferran Adrià. But in 2010, the French government scored what it considered a major victory in ensuring its culinary relevance across the globe: After a two-year campaign aided by culinary greats like Guy Savoy, Paul Bocuse, and Alain Ducasse, UNESCO officially recognized France’s "gastronomic meal" as Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Loic Bienassis of the Institut Européen d'Histoire et des Cultures de l'Alimentation (European Institute of History and of Cultures of the Diet), the organization that led France’s UNESCO push, insists the effort wasn’t about asserting France’s culinary superiority to any other nation; rather, it was a way of prodding the government to better promote its culinary heritage. And, he claims, it worked. "The French foreign ministry is more aware than ever of the importance of this cause," he says, "gastronomy being a fundamental asset contributing to the attractiveness of France abroad."
He notes that the UNESCO recognition inspired the French government to launch Fête de la Gastronomie, a giant nationwide food festival that takes place each year on the last weekend of September, and encompasses everything from cooking demos by top chefs to special lower-priced tasting menus at some of its hallowed fine dining institutions. Unsurprisingly, it’s also proved quite the draw for tourists.
But while preserving cultural and culinary diversity is a cause few would argue against, not everyone agrees that adding foodways to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list is beneficial. Some say that anointing cuisines with UNESCO status is akin to cultural fossilization: Restaurant critic François Simon, formerly of French newspaper Le Figaro, felt the campaign would officially doom his nation’s cuisine to boredom, writing, "Opening the door of a restaurant, making a soufflé rise, shelling an oyster, will become part of cultural activity, like falling asleep at the opera, yawning at the theater or slumping over Joyce’s Ulysses."
Others argue that the quest to preserve traditional foodways can sometimes disregard the lives of the very people it intends to honor. UNESCO bestowed Intangible Cultural Heritage status on "traditional Mexican cuisine" in 2010, and the inscription specifically makes mention of cooking utensils like grinding stones, traditionally used to turn corn into masa. Such traditional, labor-intensive methods undoubtedly produce better-tasting tortillas, but at what cost? Time-saving modern technologies such as packaged masa or electric mills free Mexican women up to take jobs outside the home and enable them to send their children to school, says food historian Rachel Laudan. "You can't legislate people to stay at a certain technological level," she points out.
Some say that anointing cuisines with UNESCO status is akin to cultural fossilization; other argue it helps preserve traditions.
Still, some nations have seemingly pressing reasons to seek UNESCO status. In its UNESCO nomination file, France argued that including foodways as objects of heritage "could contribute to the fight against the standardization of lifestyles in the world." For some countries, seeking status is driven by a worry that traditional ways of life are being eroded, and hope that such recognition will encourage their citizens to preserve them.
In 2013, UNESCO approved the Japanese government’s proposal to add its washoku food culture — the traditional diet of rice, miso soup, and fish — to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The nation hoped acknowledging its indigenous way of eating would have the effect of "enhancing its global recognition, attracting more foreign tourists and boosting exports of the country’s agricultural products." (Japan’s exports of food, agriculture, and fish recently hit a record high, though it’s difficult to deduce whether or not its UNESCO designation had anything to do with that.)
But Japan also had another reason for wanting UNESCO recognition for its traditional way of eating. "Changes in social and economic structures, as well as the globalization of food, have raised concern about whether communities can continue to pass down traditional Japanese dietary cultures," the Japan Times explained, and "the government also hopes the heritage listing will help younger generations recognize the value of such cultures." It’s no surprise that Japan is worried about preserving its traditional diet: As the country’s shrinking population ages, seafood consumption has been on the decline for the past two decades, while red meat has soared in popularity.
It’s perhaps too soon to tell whether or not washoku’s Intangible Cultural Heritage status will encourage Japan’s younger generation to more carefully honor the kind of cooking preferred by their parents and grandparents. But in another similar case, UNESCO recognition has seemingly done little to prevent the erosion of such traditions: Recent reports indicate that, despite being recognized by UNESCO, the Mediterranean diet — a traditional, if rather broad, way of eating that’s heavy on fruit and vegetables, grains, extra-virgin olive oil, and fish, with a healthy dose of red wine — is steadily falling out of favor thanks to the indomitable spread of Western fast-food culture. As people in Spain and Greece increasingly fall under the spell of cheap convenience food, global health experts warn the effects could be damning, pointing to a negative impact on public health as well as the environment.
And while bestowing the Mediterranean diet with a lofty title like Intangible Cultural Heritage may seem like an applause-worthy effort to help preserve it, it turns out UNESCO itself doesn’t do much to actually help protect these traditions. "There are funds that can be used as seed money to launch activities to safeguard threatened intangible heritage items," says Roni Amelan of UNESCO’s Sector for External Relations and Public Information. "But primarily the Convention and lists help raise awareness of the value of intangible heritage, which makes people take pride in their intangible cultural heritage and cherish it."
"People think UNESCO is going out and surveying the world and picking the very best. That’s not what’s happening at all."
The United Nations name carries undeniable global clout, but the Intangible Cultural Heritage list is seemingly more of a glorified PR campaign than anything — and one that’s not without some serious flaws.
"It's such a funny business because people look at it from the outside and they think UNESCO is going out and surveying the world and picking the very best. That's not what's happening at all," Laudan says. The selection process is largely based on politics, lobbying, and which countries can come up with the funding to fuel such a campaign, rather than actual worthiness. Peru has been trying to get UNESCO designation for its cuisine for years, but simply lacks the resources of nations like Mexico, France, and Japan. (Reports suggest that France spent, at minimum, $2 million on its quest for UNESCO recognition.)
And in cases of such broad definitions like the French gastronomic meal, presenting such a narrow, non-negotiable definition of national foodways is also fraught with issues. By offering a homogenous and monocultural definition of what true French food is, the UNESCO designation excludes — and seemingly denigrates — the foods and traditions of the nation’s vast immigrant population.
Efforts to secure Intangible Cultural Heritage status are certainly launched with the best of intentions, but one has to question if the external validation is really worth all the time and money being put into these campaigns. Countries wishing to promote their native culinary traditions to instill a sense of national pride or get a boost in tourism certainly don’t need an outside agency’s stamp of approval to do so. As Laudan writes, "... culinary tradition as intangible heritage turns out upon examination to be not quite up to the job demanded of it." Much like the people and cultures that they’re inextricably linked to, foodways are complicated and ever-changing. They can’t be squeezed into a tightly defined box or suspended in time — nor should they be.