Food and Heritage

Food and Heritage

It is hard to disagree with the old adage ‘you are what you eat.’

On both a physiological and cultural level, food shapes and defines us.

The act of sharing a meal is one that throughout the globe, and indeed for much of human history, has had meaning which extends far beyond the basic need for sustenance, bonding individuals and communities together through mutual experience and understanding. Food can also be used to erect boundaries between groups, by highlighting differences and perceived transgressions of civility and taste, be it through the foodstuffs consumed, or the manner of dining.

Critically, food also underpins our health as a society, both in physical terms, but also culturally. As waistlines expand in many parts of the globe, we see that fast and processed food is having a critical impact on public health, but also that the decline of shared culturally rooted meals is having consequences for our strength as both individuals and communities.

Given food’s centrality to identity formation and human culture, it is unsurprising that it has become an important global focal point in critical heritage studies. Food heritage, like other forms of intangible or living heritage, can be particularly vulnerable to forces of capitalism, globalisation, social and economic transformation, not to mention environmental instability. Industrial farming and production, commodification, multinationals and global supply networks, and the rise of the supermarket have all taken their toll on our food heritage. Local artisan producers, ethical and sustainable farming, heirloom and heritage animal and plant species, environmental degradation and traditional foodways are all at risk. More seriously, these globalised food systems in which food is a commodity leads to famine in some parts of the globe and obesity epidemics in others.

Recognising food as heritage shows us how to embed healthy, sustainable food systems in our communities, and highlights food as a key marker for our social and physical health

Protection Measures for Food Heritage

Given the threats facing food, a number of approaches have been taken to attempt to protect our culinary inheritance. Most notably, in 2010 the first food heritage items were inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Culinary traditions are among many other forms of intangible heritage, such as language, literature, music, dance, games, sports, rituals, mythologies, knowledge and practices. Food entries inscribed on the list are wide ranging and span many regions of the globe. The Gastronomic meal of the French (2010), Turkish coffee culture and tradition (2013), Korean kimchi-making (2015), Belgium beer culture (2016) and Nsima, the culinary tradition of Malawi (2017), are all listed—to name just a few. These represent a diverse repository of culinary culture, underpinning living and sustainable cultures globally. They recognise the significance of food in the human story and attempt to safeguard its future.

The effort to protect food has happened through other means too, at a national and regional level, in response to the pressures of globalisation. The protection of geographical food and drink traditions and products is gaining momentum, with European countries and especially France leading the way. In 1925 Roquefort became the first French cheese to be awarded an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Ten years later, the AOC of French wine was established, based on the concept of ‘terroir’. Terroir refers to the complete set of environmental factors that shape a wine, including soil, topography, precipitation and climate.

It is a concept that is now used in food studies more broadly, beyond just wine, to express the importance of place. It suggests that the physical, biological conditions of an environment create an authenticity that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Stemming from this, a European system for the protection of the geographical names of certain foodstuffs was established. Protection under the system prevents imitation of a product and, most significantly, protects naming. Australians will be familiar with our wine industry’s fight in vain to retain the use the name ‘champagne’ and the subsequent rise of ‘sparkling wine’. Now, negotiations between the EU and Australian authorities extend to feta and prosecco, to name just a few. Thus, place-based heritage as expressed though the concept of terroir and appellations can be used as a means to safeguard food culture, but also to protect and strengthen globalised commercial trade networks.

The Challenge of Food as Heritage

Designating and classifying foods as cultural heritage is complex. Terroir designations and UNESCO listings are critical, but they are complicated by commercial interests and they promote the maintenance of cultural boundaries at a time when populations are more mobile and communities more diverse than ever before. Erecting boundaries and enforcing such protections may recognise the heritage values of food, but this process can also come into tension with the natural flow and evolution of cuisine. How do we protect food and tradition, but simultaneously recognise that it is by necessity a dynamic, living, ever-changing element of human culture? The task of a heritage consultant in the face of rapidly changing environments and increasingly diverse communities is to ensure that the past remains a relevant aspect of urban life.

Cuisine can stagnate and lose connection to its community and context; it is also in danger from other forces. This tension has been magnified by the rise of culinary tourism, where food and community are severed from one another, and what is presented on a plate to the consumer or voyeur is a pallid reflection of something once meaningful; decontextualised, standardised and commodified.

We must constantly navigate complex questions such as: who owns the past? In the context of food heritage, the pace of change is accelerated, and cuisine is constantly in flux. Where do we draw boundaries in shifting sands? How do we establish thresholds for change where cultures require change to survive?

Adaptation, receptiveness and fluidity are critical aspects of thriving culinary cultures, which need to reflect and be rooted in communities. People encounter others, share food, adapt, exchange and circulate recipes and culinary information. This is how food cultures thrive, and it is critical to their meaning—our food reflects who we are and needs to change with us. This process can come into sharp conflict with heritage: food purists and traditionalists in one corner, and fusion and innovation the other. In short, the debate over who owns food culture is perhaps even more complex than that of who owns the past.

The Future of Food Heritage

In a rapidly changing city like Sydney with an increasingly diverse, growing population, issues relating to appellations and intangible heritage listings are unlikely to ever feature daily in our work. But given how important food is to the health of our communities, it is worth considering what role it should play in our practice. How can we incorporate an understanding of food into cultural and social values assessments?

We might start with different strands of historical enquiry, or by asking ourselves more detailed questions about what places meant to people in the past. Experiential analyses and living heritage could add new layers and depths to our understanding of what places mean to communities and why. Farms, dairies, market gardens, kitchens, dining rooms, camps, middens, cesspits—these are places where people grew, processed, cooked, ate and disposed of food. How does understanding food and foodways enhance our understanding of the heritage values of these places? Most importantly, what does food mean to the communities we work with and how can we ensure that as heritage practitioners we are getting to the heart of the stories that matter?

Critically, though, as we face a changing climate over the next decades food heritage will come under threat on an unprecedented scale. Food security will be one of the key issues facing humanity in the following century, and will indeed threaten our very survival as a species. As our ability to produce food is challenged, what elements of global food heritage will be lost? How many traditional food systems, species, crops and economies will be threatened as we struggle simply to feed ourselves? And to shore up our food supply networks, what difficult decisions will we need to make?

The meat and dairy industries have increasingly fallen under the spotlight in public debate as major emitters of greenhouse gases. Wars erupt on social media between vegans and carnivores. These may seem trivial or hysterical, but they cut to the quick of cultural identity for many, and indeed, to our very identity as a species. How will we adapt to a world in which our diet will need to change? Will we shift towards plant-based eating? Will we embrace alternative sources of protein such as insects or artificially produced meat alternatives? And in all of this, what will be lost along the way?

The future for food has never been more uncertain. I hope by looking to the past, where soil, land, seasonality, balance and connectedness were understood, we can find lessons that will help create a meaningful and nourishing food future for generations.