The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, better known as UNESCO, was established in 1945 with the aim of contributing “to the building of a culture of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information”. Irina Bokova, Director-General since 2009, has stated that the real values which form the essence of humanity include culture and art, and the promotion of cultural diversity by safeguarding heritage and enhancing cultural expressions is at the heart of the organisation’s mission. While we are probably all aware of the existence of UNESCO’s designated “world heritage” sites, many of which are household names, the concept of “intangible cultural heritage” is perhaps less familiar. The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was not in fact established until 2003, with the aim not only of preserving “living heritage” but also increasing public recognition of its importance. Since its inception, the Convention has awarded intangible heritage status to 232 cultural expressions, which have ranged from the carpet weaving of Iran and stone-cross art of Armenia to the Peking Opera and the Batik of Indonesia. Food and cooking, however, have never been included and the UNESCO announcement in Nairobi on 16 November 2010 that the honour of intangible cultural heritage designation had been bestowed upon Mexican Cuisine was greeted with tremendous personal and national pride and excitement – myself included.
The award was based on the acknowledgement of the cuisine’s pivotal role in an ancestral way of life and its function within the community. Far from simply consisting of food and its dietary purpose, it was seen as a millennia old way of living which begins with the sowing and reaping in the “milpa”, the traditional cornfield, or the “chinampas”, the manmade agricultural islands in lake areas, right through to the final preparation of the dishes and consumption of the food. All the steps involved, from specific and totally unique farming methods and symbolic, ritual practices to native ingredients and culinary procedures such as the “nixtamalisation” of the corn and the use of utterly Mexican cooking utensils like the “metate” or lava rock grinding stone, the “molcajete” or mortar and the “comal”, an earthenware griddle, were deemed to make up a “comprehensive cultural model” which is central to the cultural identity of individual communities and the Mexican people as a whole.
The UNESCO award has also taken into account the endeavours of the government and many organisations in Mexico to preserve and safeguard its immensely rich culinary heritage, which is under increasing threat from globalisation as well as convenience and imported foods, and to ensure that ancestral knowledge is thereby kept alive for future generations. These include projects nationwide to educate and heighten awareness, the best example of which is a pilot scheme in the state of Michoacán, where women from different communities who are noted for their cooking skills come together to exchange information about traditional cooking methods, techniques and procedures, as well as their specific local cuisine and ingredients, and attend cookery demonstrations and training sessions. This is enabling them both to disseminate their knowledge, and invigorate and reinforce their local, ancestral and historical culinary identity, and the concept and project are now being carried to other states like Puebla, Oaxaca and Yucatán, which are all renowned for their regional gastronomy.
The case for Mexican cuisine as intangible cultural heritage was prepared and submitted by the National Institute of Anthropology and History and the Conservatory of Mexican Gastronomic Culture in the form of two documents: “Mexican Cuisine – An Enduring Culture”, and “People of Corn: Mexico’s Ancestral Cuisine – Rituals, Ceremonies and Cultural Practices of the Cuisine of the Mexican People”. They both make fascinating reading and vividly illustrate the development of Mexican cuisine throughout its long and turbulent history, from its ancient pre-Hispanic roots through its assimilation of foreign ingredients after the Spanish Conquest to its modern “meztizo” identity. I was struck by how extensive and varied it was from the start, as a popular cuisine which grew in the public plazas, markets and streets, facilitated by far-reaching trade systems and the resulting convergence of foodstuffs first from all over the indigenous world and eventually from Europe, Asia and beyond. The documents also brought home what an indelible part food and cooking play in a nation’s identity and culture, and the necessity in the 21st century to honour and preserve it, and defend it from extinction by the global “wave of standardised ingredients” and the “onslaught of novelty products”.
Viva México and its incomparable intangible gastronomic heritage!