Culture, Place and Taste

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Reflections on the spatial politics of food as Intangible Cultural Heritage

by Ben Davenport

Introduction

In December 2023 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage met for its Eighteenth Session in Kasane, Republic of Botswana. Over the course of four days of meetings the Committee inscribed a further 45 nominations to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (Representative List), swelling the ranks of inscribed Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) to over 700 entries representing nominations from more than 140 countries. Notable among the 2023 nominations, as had been the case in previous years, was the number of practices and cultural expressions related to culinary traditions or food heritage. 

Examples of food heritage added to the Representative List in 2023 include Al-Man’ouché, an emblematic culinary practice in Lebanon, the Practices and meanings associated with the preparation and consumption of ceviche, an expression of Peruvian traditional cuisine,  and the Harees dish: know-how, skills and practices nomination, a multinational submission from the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, which recognises the shared tradition of dishes containing wheat grain, meat and ghee. Also inscribed at the meeting was Xeedho’, a dish of dried and preserved dromedary meat, an important marriage gift in Djibouti, which was added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding (Urgent Safeguarding List). 

Less obvious examples of food-related heritages, however, were inscriptions that speak to the highly relational nature of food traditions and ‘foodways’ as important components of both daily life and celebratory occasions for many communities. This can be seen in practices inscribed in 2023 related to food production and agriculture, such as ‘Transhumance, the seasonal droving of livestock and Traditional irrigation: knowledge, technique, and organization’ on the Representative List. Food’s role in celebrations and festivities was also evident, as in the inscription of the Sango Festival, Oyo’ in Nigeria, where the sharing of roasted new yam is an important expression of collective identity, or the ‘Shuwalid festival in Ethiopia, which can be consider to be related to food practices in that it marks the end of a period of religious fasting. 

Food Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage

Past research has sought to classify or categorise different forms of ‘food heritage’ and have largely taken an exclusive approach, focusing only on food production and the produce themselves (Csergo 2019, Englisch 2023). Much other research has explored the place of food within the ICH lists and the evolution of food nominations since the adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH Convention) in 2003 (Carr et al. 2018, de Miguel Molina et al. 2016, Romagnoli 2019). My own research is interested in food heritage and migration, and will look at the ICH lists through the lens of food heritage to examine the spatial politics evident in the patterning of ICH inscriptions and the different forms of claim-making they reflect. With the UK government planning to ratify the ICH Convention, now seems like a good time to review some of the ways that state parties have used the ICH Lists in relation to food heritage over the last twenty years. This post will look at some of the entanglements of ideas about food, place and ownership.

Often termed ‘food wars’, conflicts over the status of particular foods as national dishes are observable in successive inscriptions on the Representative List, such as in the example of Kimjang, making and sharing kimchi in the Republic of Korea’ in 2013 and the ‘Tradition of kimchi-making in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ in 2015. Both nomination files emphasise the important role of kimchi-making in promoting community cooperation and an appreciation of the need to live in harmony with nature. While the 2013 nomination file asserts that the ‘community [of kimchi makers] includes virtually all Koreans’ and the 2015 file states that the ‘community includes all Koreans’ and that the ‘tradition of Kimchi-making retains its original characteristics even among overseas Koreans’, each state made their own separate nominations, neither explicitly making mention of their neighbours. Indeed, kimchi has been the subject of repeated tensions between the Republic of Korea and neighbours China and Japan over issues of cultural ownership, production and import restrictions in recent years. 

In Europe conflicts over national foods have tended to be less frequently played out through the ICH Lists but have been no less fraught or emotionally charged. The inclusion of the Culture of Ukrainian borscht cooking’ on the Urgent Safeguarding List at an extraordinary session of the Intergovernmental Committee in 2022 is a much publicised exception. In this case, the viability of the practice was agreed to be threatened by the multiple impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Powderly and Strecker 2023: 450)1. Debates over the ‘national origins’ of borscht pre-dated the invasion of Ukraine, however, and the dish had already become a significant cultural rallying point and symbol of resistance for Ukrainians (Lesiv 2021).

While the case of borscht was largely articulated as an emotional and moral right to the dish, in the case of other conflicts over food within Europe the designation of traditional products is often tied up with issues of intellectual property rights and protections (Deacon 2018). The European Union’s Quality Schemes consist of several forms of protection which aim at protecting the names of specific products based on their geographical origin, through the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), and Geographical Indication (GI) labels2 (European Parliament 2024). By 2020 there were more than 3,300 labels awarded to ‘traditional products’ under this scheme (Council of Europe 2020). Amongst these feta cheese, which was one of the first products to receive a PDO label in 1999, has been the subject of numerous challenges to exclusive production in Greece, finally resulting in the other countries within the EU losing the right to use the name feta in 2007 (DeSoucey 2010: 442). Many examples of such conflicts exist, including Champagne, Loukoumi and Parmigiano Reggiano. In a few instances, state parties have sought to use both the EU scheme and ICH Convention as in the case of Neapolitan Pizza Making, which is inscribed as ‘Pizza Napoletana’ on the former and the Art of Neapolitan ‘Pizzaiuolo’ on the latter (Deacon 2018). 

The Future for ICH in the UK?

As I write this blog post, the UK government is engaged in a consultation on the implementation of its plans to ratify UNESCO’s 2003 Convention3. Two decades after the Convention was first adopted at the UNESCO General Conference what does looking at the inscription of food heritage to the ICH Lists suggest as ways forward for the UK? In reflecting on competing food heritage nominations as nation-building strategies in Western Asia, Bahar Aykan has called for modifications in the Operational Directives of the Convention to encourage multinational registration and the promotion of ‘a transnational understanding of intangible heritage’ (Aykan 2016: 808). While modification may produce some positive results, we should consider that multination submissions are not always as inclusive as they appear. The Mediterranean Diet nomination put forward in its revised state by Cyprus, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Morocco in 2013 makes strong references to the ‘cultural and social sharing’ of a ‘rich palette of regional tones’ across the Mediterranean. However, the text of the nomination file remained largely Eurocentric, making no mention of the 14 other countries bordering the Mediterranean but not included among the nominating state parties and which contribute to the Mediterranean’s culinary history. Let alone the ‘historic role of colonialism’ or the long history of influences of Arab, African and Jewish peoples to the region’s food traditions (Hong 2023). 

Instead, we may be better served by returning to the original aims of the ICH Convention, namely: to safeguard, ensure respect, raise awareness, and ensure mutual appreciation of the intangible cultural heritage of communities, groups, and individuals, and to provide international cooperation and assistance (UNESCO 2003). These guiding principles are certainly well reference in the UK government’s announcement of their intention to ratify the Convention (DCMS 2023). It was confirmed that the first stage of the process of adopting the Convention would be the creation of an inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in the UK. With heritage a devolved issue it will be interesting to see how the different nations of the UK will undertake the process of compiling the lists and what spatial politics play out in this process. The announcement also confirmed that there is no intention of nominating items to the Representative List for the first few years after ratifying the Convention and that ‘judging which elements are more valuable or important than others is neither desirable or beneficial’ (DCMS 2023). We can only hope that some of the lessons learnt from post food heritage nominations to the Representative List will persuade against the increasingly prevalent trend of seeing heritage values as a ‘zero-sum game’. 

If the UK government is true to its intention to ‘lift all [ICH] rather than list a few with UNESCO’ (DCMS 2023) then there is some hope that the ‘invaluable role of the intangible cultural heritage as a factor in bringing human beings closer together and ensuring exchange and understanding’ (UNESCO 2003) might be realised. This will be important in the coming years as we face the huge challenges related to increases in the transnational movement of people, which will redefine the ‘place’ of ICH, as practices and traditions move with the communities and groups that sustain and develop them. Equally the impacts of climate change are already disrupting aspects of production of PDO and PGI foods with implications for the legal recognition of their terroir (Clark and Kerr 2017). This is why the use of the word in rather than of within the description of an ‘Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in the UK’ is so important. The ICH that exists in the UK today will inevitably be very different to that found within the UK in the future and may be shared with a variety of new locations and communities. By disentangling the some of the assumed and essentialised connections between ICHs and ‘nation’ and reemphasising the connection to the people who practice them we can better acknowledge and protect increasingly distributed heritages and heritage values that the future food heritage will invariably entail.

Footnotes

  1. This was the first time that Article 17(3) of the ICH Convention had been invoked by a State Party to the Convention and represented ‘a case of extreme urgency’.

  2. A proposal for legislative changes relating to current regulations on geographic indications the is waiting adoption by the European Parliament and Council of Europe.

  3. The DCMS consultation runs until 29 February 2024: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/2003-unesco-convention-for-the-safeguarding-of-the-intangible-cultural-heritage

References

Aykan, B., 2016. The politics of intangible heritage and food fights in Western Asia. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 22(10), 799-810.

Carr, G., Sørensen, M.L.S. and Viejo Rose, D., 2018. Food as heritage, in Far from the hearth: essays in honour of Martin K. Jones. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Clark, L.F. and Kerr, W.A., 2017. Climate change and terroir: The challenge of adapting geographical indications. The Journal of World Intellectual Property20(3-4), 88-102.

Council of Europe, 2020. Press Release – Geographical Indications – a European treasure worth €75 billion. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/api/files/document/print/en/ip_20_683/IP_20_683_EN.pdf. [Accessed on 9 February 2024].

Csergo, J., 2019. Food as a Collective Heritage Brand in the Era of Globalization. Journal of Cultural Property 25(4), 449-468.

DCMS, 2023. Consultation on the 2003 UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/2003-unesco-convention-for-the-safeguarding-of-the-intangible-cultural-heritage/consultation-on-the-2003-unesco-convention-for-safeguarding-of-the-intangible-cultural-heritage. [Accessed on 9 February 2024].

Deacon, H., 2018. Safeguarding the art of pizza making: parallel use of the traditional specialities guaranteed scheme and the UNESCO intangible heritage convention. International Journal of Cultural Property, 25(4), 515-542.

de Miguel Molina, M., de Miguel Molina, B., Santamarina Campos, V. and del Val Segarra Oña, M., 2016. Intangible heritage and gastronomy: The impact of UNESCO gastronomy elements. Journal of Culinary Science & Technology, 14(4), pp.293-310.

DeSoucey, M., 2010. Gastronationalism: Food traditions and authenticity politics in the European Union. American Sociological Review, 75(3), 432-455.

European Parliament, 2024. Briefing – Geographical indications for wine, spirit drinks and agricultural products https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document/EPRS_BRI(2023)739304. [Accessed on 9 February 2024].

Hong, D. 2023. The Game of Gastrodiplomacy. Vittles, Season 7: Food and Policy https://www.vittlesmagazine.com/p/the-game-of-gastrodiplomacy. [Accessed on 16 January 2024].

Lesiv, M., 2021. Not All Quiet on the Culinary Front: The Battle Over Borshch in Ukraine. FOLKLORICA – Journal of the Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Folklore Association25(1), 58-77.

Powderly, J. and Strecker, A., 2023. Afterword: Heritage Destruction and the War on Ukraine, in Heritage Destruction, Human Rights and International Law. Brill, 423-454.

Romagnoli, M., 2019. Gastronomic heritage elements at UNESCO: Problems, reflections on and interpretations of a new heritage category. International Journal of Intangible Heritage 14, 157-171.

UNESCO, 2003. Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. https://ich.unesco.org/en/convention [Accessed 1 February 2024].

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