Identity, heritage and food: Why food is a hot new heritage topic

  • Posted on March 14, 2011

Bokkoms by Andy Carter

Bokkoms by Andy Carter http://www.flickr.com/photos/salsaboy/2449275663/

Why is food important as a heritage topic?

We eat to live (and some of us live to eat), but food also carries with it the smells and tastes of places, families and histories. It matters to us what we eat, when we eat and how we eat. The story of food allows us to construct different kinds of historical narratives, both personal and political. The history of food provides an alternative window on social, environmental, economic and political history.

Food is an interesting way of exploring the changing identities and histories of places and communities. One of my favourite blogs is edible geography, and Sarah Duff has begun an interesting Tangerine and Cinnamon blog looking at South African and other food histories. Our family histories could be told through the recipes or favourite meals of different generations, whether bokkoms, samoosas and sosaties, morogo and pap, or avocado mousse and coronation chicken. Our own autobiographies could be told through a succession of food events or recipes. This is what Anna Trapido did so successfully with A Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela. The book tells the story of Nelson Mandela, his family and the struggle for freedom through the meals they shared together.

Diets at Robben Island, by George Conard 


Diets at Robben Island, by George Conard http://www.flickr.com/photos/georgeconard/385359086/
There’s a politics and economics to food of course, as books on the history of salt and cod have shown - this is what makes it interesting. Diana Wylie’s fascinating book Starving on a Full Stomach explores the link between apartheid, colonialism and scientific racism around malnutrition among Africans. At a household level, knowledge about food and who prepares it is gendered, income and availability affects access to food, and changing ideas about health, social status and conspicuous consumption affect what foods are chosen. Commercial food marketing drives new food choices. Anne Mager’s book on the history of beer, sociability and masculinity in South Africa from the mid 1950s shows how commercial beer brewers used and shaped drinker preferences and behaviours while competing for market share. Also, food demand affects supply. In the 19th century Cape, crayfish was a staple of the Khoi and slave communities, but was shunned by the middle and upper classes; it was a subsistence meal of the poor, a staple of people sent to Robben Island because they had leprosy. By the late 20th century it had become an upper-class luxury locally and abroad, and was consequently poached out of existence in many coastal towns.

Why has interest in food as heritage come so late?

Perhaps because heritage work has generally focused on heritage places and objects, food has not been considered a heritage ‘resource’ until recently. But I don’t quite understand why it has also taken a long time for academic histories of food to become mainstream, thirty years after social history and gender analysis became fashionable. (The shift happened much earlier in French academic writing, of course, than in English academia.)

What’s being done in the heritage field?

Museum and heritage projects around food are growing rapidly. FARO, a NGO in Brussels, runs a ‘week of taste’ in Flanders each November that celebrates food consumption, production and the food heritage different cities in the area, featuring a new guest country each year. This project promotes local products and restaurants at the same time as building communities and encouraging reflection on the heritage and politics of food. Food heritage is of course linked to questions of ecology, sustainability, health and landscape. Manchester’s Forgotten Fields calendar project encourages schoolchildren to conceptualise landscape change and historical foodways by interviewing older generations about food production and consumption. In this project, food heritage promotes local activism to improve access to rural spaces and healthy local produce. On top of a number of other food-related museum spaces, which celebrate the potato, burnt food (virtually, of course) and food in general (including the Alimentarium, founded by Nestle), chefs have been fundraising to establish a Museum of Food and Drink in New York, MPs recently proposed a food museum in Singapore, and an online food museum is starting a Global Food Heritage Project.

In 2010, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco, France and Mexico successfully nominated three food-related intangible heritage elements - the Mediterranean Diet, Mexican Cuisine and the Gastronomic Meal of the French - on the Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity under the UNESCO Intangible Heritage Convention. This step marks a significant shift in international recognition of foodways as heritage, and will be discussed in a later blog.

In South Africa, where we have a rich food history and a dual epidemic of obesity and malnutrition to tackle, exploring food as a heritage issue can raise interesting qestions about identity, our relationship to the land, the availability and quality of local produce, poverty and health. It also offers obvious spin-offs in the form of product development - Hertzoggies, anyone?

Harriet Deacon, consultant correspondent to the Archival Platform, is currently based in the UK where she has been involved in writing training materials for UNESCO about the Intangible Heritage Convention. A medical historian by training, she was lead author of The Subtle Power of Intangible Heritage, and was on the expert panel developing the South African draft ICH Policy in 2007-2009.

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  • Wonderful article! I’d like to also bring to your attention the Pickle Project of Linda Norris and Sarah Crow as another great example of what is being done in the field with food heritage. The pair are working to document Ukranian gastronomy and traditions http://pickleproject.blogspot.com/

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