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Food: Heritage and Evolution

Illustration by Anna Seibæk Torp-Pedersen

Cuisine is central to the heritage of many people across the world, who draw on national, local and familial traditions whenever they cook and eat. Dishes and delicacies help to define identities and have shaped popular perceptions of countries, from the steadfast sauerkraut of Germany to the classic coq au vin of France. William Hogarth used a side of British beef as a symbol of his nation’s wealth and power in his 1748 painting The Gate of Calais, a less than flattering comment on our closest continental neighbours. Food is undoubtedly one of the most salient and enduring aspects of culture. It is only in recent years, however, that it has been appreciated as a facet of heritage worthy of preservation by our institutions. Occurring alongside an ongoing food revolution in which multitudinous cuisines are on offer, their efforts to protect the traditional raise questions as to the onward trajectory of our culinary journey.

Each year since 2010, UNESCO have published a list of Intangible Cultural Heritage phenomena, now including such cultural expressions as the Georgian alphabet, Mongolian calligraphy, Chinese shadow puppetry and Indonesian batik, for conservation alongside its usual World Heritage sites like the Great Barrier Reef and Athenian Acropolis. This has aided the preservation of great food traditions alongside the typical historical and environmental wonders that we all know. Protections that have been put in place include those for the gingerbread craft of northern Croatia, the beer culture of Belgium and dough-making in Naples. Pizza now stands with Pompeii within a more rounded and comprehensive vision of a heritage and culture worth keeping safe for the world.

Although nothing from the United Kingdom made it on to UNESCO’s new list, certain traditional British foods such as Stilton cheese and the Cornish pasty currently enjoy special designated status under the laws of the European Union. These protections are invaluable; they keep imitational and inferior competition at bay and ensure that authentic products remain in production, safeguarding the past for the future. However, far from restricting our diets to those foods that share our origins, we can today experience a huge range of dishes from around the world. London, where a rich multiculturalism proliferates, offers particularly rich pickings for the culinary adventurer hunting for the next revelation on their one-city global tour.

Considering how the multicultural foods that we eat today might be judged far in the future provokes questions regarding the nature of heritage and tradition. How long will apparently ‘foreign’ cuisines be consumed before they can be judged alongside older food customs? Can the eclecticism of what we choose to eat today, and the reimagining of traditional foods with an injection of exotic vitality, be the answer to maintaining a culinary heritage and consolidating it for the decades ahead? In a world as globalised as this, is the production of nation-specific heritages for the future even possible, or will notions of heritage itself become obsolete in the world of ever-increasing connectivity that is now emerging, in which everything seems available, everywhere?

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