The Bloomsbury Handbook of Food and Popular Culture
The Bloomsbury Handbook of Food and Popular Culture

Kathleen LeBesco

Kathleen LeBesco is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Marymount Manhattan College, USA. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Peter Naccarato

Peter Naccarato is Professor of English and Chair of the Humanities Division at Marymount Manhattan College, USA. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2018


Content Type:

Book chapter



Related Content

Food and Cultural Heritage: Preserving, Reinventing, and Exposing Food Cultures

DOI: 10.5040/9781474296250.0031
Page Range: 301–313


Heritage denotes the accumulation of tangible and intangible goods that a society inherits from the past, preserves in the present, and passes on to the future (Di Giovine and Brulotte 2014, 1). More and more the conceptualization of food as heritage has entered into a wide public debate, with a multitude of groups, associations, and committees working to give value to particular foods linked to certain places and communities, using words such as “tradition,” “cultural identity,” and “popular/folk culture” outside of the discipline of cultural anthropology (Clemente and Mugnaini 2001). Some anthropologists have argued that social scientists should consider contemporary notions of heritage and traditions as “native accounts,” namely as selections that people make of their past, used strategically for political, economic, and ideological goals. They advise not to consider the concept of heritage proposed by social actors as factual data, and they propose the disarticulation of processes of “heritagization” themselves in different contexts, raising questions about who has the right to claim ownership of the past, and with what results: heritage is not an identifiable object that preexists its construction and valorization (Badii 2012). Although heritage is a constructed set of discourses and practices, rethinking certain food practices as heritage has a real impact on the cultural and economic lives of people and places: among many other outcomes, it allows some people to be active agents in the re-articulation and revitalization of local settings in global contexts (Di Giovine 2014; Papa 1999).

This chapter explores the ways food is used to create identity claims as cultural heritage on local, regional, national, and international scales. It will analyze the ways in which the European Union, consortia of producers, and voluntary organizations are claiming typicality for certain classes of food, often standardizing products in the process. On a national and international level, it will analyze the ways in which UNESCO has institutionally designated the food and cuisines of several countries as “intangible cultural heritage” not by simply identifying preexisting food cultures, but by actively constructing unity in different cuisines (Sammells 2014, 143). It will link the heritage industry with food museums, analyzing how food is used for group self-identification at different levels, in order to demarcate particular communities.

Heritage, Tradition, and Typicality

Food is often a primary marker of identity connecting people through space and time: individuals collectively remember past experiences through meals, dishes, and gastronomy, and they recollect and re-create images of what their predecessors did before them through cooking certain foods, following certain dietary rules, re-enacting food rituals, and so on (Di Giovine and Brulotte, 2014). Food and agricultural products have entered the discourse around heritage at different levels, and the words “traditional” and “typical” are now fully part of the everyday language and are accepted as common sense. These terms were once the specific realm of study of anthropologists, who classified as traditional “folk” practices that people carried on for their internal consumption, and not for an external public, “unaware” of the fact that they were traditional. Now they are common concepts used by the social actors themselves, by administrators and institutions that validate certain food practices over others as representative of communities and places. Now that these concepts have entered the realm of everyday language, contemporary anthropologists and social scientists have shifted their attention from the study of traditions and heritage per se, to the processes through which heritage is claimed and constructed, and the cultural and political engineering behind its formation (Palumbo 2003; Dei 2002). Heritage is not a simple passage from the past, but indicates a form of cultural production with reformative significance, often claimed through a series of practices that entails arbitrations and engineering in the realm of cultural politics (Kuutma 2013, 1). It is about the regulation and negotiation of the multiplicity of meaning of the past, and the mediation of the cultural and social politics of identity, belonging, and exclusion. It designates configurations that articulate both relations of power and relations of meaning (2). It is not the authenticity per se but the question of authenticity that creates heritage designations, through acts of identification and negotiation (Di Giovine and Brulotte 2014).

Many works on food in the European Union have explored the invention of tradition behind claims to typicality and the associated concept of terroir, that is the uniqueness that geography, climate, and human knowledge and practices give to food. The story of the concept of terroir (which can be translated as “the taste of place”) is complex, and Amy Trubek (2008) has traced the ways in which the use of ideas about place to make arguments about quality became increasingly important in the late nineteenth century in France. By the early twentieth century it had become part of a serious sociopolitical movement to protect French agricultural products, culminating with the founding of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine in the 1930s and laws that supported the idea of Appellation d'origine contrôlée (24). Beginning in the twentieth century a group of people began to organize around this naturalized interpretation of taste, for they saw the potential benefits of a food view celebrating an agrarian and rural way of life.

Food-specific notions of heritage often conflate sociocultural and natural qualities. Categories of Geographical Indications distinguish certain foods from others through claims of the impossibility to replicate food somewhere else; however, there isn’t consensus on the impact of geography on the quality and taste of products (Nowak 2012). Europe, by 2014, had 595 Protected Denominations of Origins and 601 Protected Geographical Indication products (Rippon 2014). In Italy, for example, prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Chianti wine are all registered trademarks through terroir claims.

A few pioneer studies have deconstructed the naturalness of heritage claims of iconic products. For example, Kolleen Guy (2007) has shown that Champagne “became French” not just because it is not replicable anywhere else, but also because this beverage was invested with cultural capital by the rising middle class, and was instrumental to nation-building sentiments and the will to protect a market. In a similar fashion Susan Terrio (2000), in a study of chocolate artisans in South-East France, has explored the construction of chocolate as a cultural good used for the affirmation of national identity against a European universal culture. The defense of local chocolate craft is seen as an answer to international market competition in light of the heavier bureaucratic norms that have pushed local producers to assert their autonomy. As food becomes a vehicle for distinction in the search for an authenticity opposed to the perceived homogeni zing forces of globalization, chocolate makers construct themselves as heirs of a carefully selected idealized past (Papa 1999).

Cristina Grasseni (2011) argues that boundary construction is a key element in the social construction of food as heritage. In her ethnographic studies of certified Italian Alps cheeses, a consortium of producers had to commission archive studies in order to establish the historical boundaries of production, de facto reinventing mountain cheese as a typical product. Drawing defined boundaries over what has always been porous (especially in conjunction with practices of transhumance) created frictions. She reports the battle against the official consortium for the protection of the geographically denominated Bitto cheese (Consorzio Tutela Bitto Casera della Valtellina), from the rival association of Produttori di Bitto delle Valli del Bitto (“Producers of Bitto cheese from the Bitto valleys”). The consortium was accused of having enlarged the area of production with the objective of selling Bitto cheese that is not made in high pastures, and has less goat milk content. The original producers fought to maintain their own traditional areas of production following their routines of production: cheese making on the pastures straight after hand milking, under makeshift tents built around traditional roofless stone structures, with a ratio of at least 10 to 20 percent goat milk. A larger terroir to be trademarked as Bitto and a higher percentage of cow milk in the product has benefited the lowland producers from Valtellina at the expense of a niche production that advocates the values of local heritage and authenticity (30–31).

Outside of Europe, Heather Paxson (2013), in her ethnographic study of artisanal cheese makers in the United States, calls terroir not an objective thing to protect, but “an articulation of value” (212). American producers don’t derive the value of authenticity from demonstrating continuity with the past, but translate the notion of terroir as embodying other aspirations: environmental stewardship, agrarian enterprise, and rural community (190). For the author, terroir offers a conceptual terrain on which artisan entrepreneurs negotiate the relationship between ecological and moral values, and the commercial values they seek (191). This concept in the United States is not yet routinized or standardized, and thus cheese makers use terroir as a way to situate their own senses of place (211). However, it is unclear if artisan food makers will have the final say on what “terroir” comes to signify in American popular culture or if this notion will become legally binding (212). In a similar fashion, Cristina Papa (1999), in her study of artisanal olive-oil producers in Umbria, Italy, explains the concept of typicality as a contested cultural field where local people and communities create value. She calls the typical product an oxymoron since it represents the tension between local and global horizons. In the passage from being local to becoming typical (defined by international markets and parameters), the local product becomes standardized: in order to protect its diversity, the myriad of local knowledges are frozen by official knowledges and regulations, thus effectively reducing diversity. Although olive-oil producers rely on local histories to construct their products as traditional and typical, the author warns not to limit the conceptual framework to the “invention of tradition” when analyzing those narratives. If all self-representations are constructed, and thus equally untrue, it would be impossible to differentiate between an industrial and an artisanal olive oil that presents objective differences, including its organoleptic qualities, namely the peculiar taste, smell, color, and general feel of artisanal Umbrian olive oil that distinguishes it from industrial oils. Instead, she offers a more nuanced working definition of typicality:

What makes a product “typical” is an act of manipulation but not only an artifice, a construction for the sake of the market: it is also a construct aimed at self-representation and based on facts and behaviors that belong to the local and individual culture of the people that embody the tradition. It is an in situ selection of features that belong to a context by those who are part of that context and act on it consciously in a creative act of re-elaboration of the local style. (Papa 1999, 159)

Terroir and locality discourses, despite being sometimes employed in such a manner as to both fetishize and anthropomorphize nature, have considerable virtues in the age of nondistinctive mass production (Ulin 2013); the popularity of terroir lies in its capacity to link food and wine to particular places in light of the general anonymity of commodities under late capitalism (Ulin and Black 2013, 13).

Di Giovine (2014), in his important edited book about food and cultural heritage, emphasizes the deeper symbolic and emotional implications that heritage entails. Heritage can be used to revive local communities not only economically, but also socially and culturally. He shows the importance of sagre popolari (folk food festivals), in the Italian context, for the re-articulation of local foods into the heritage discourse, if not legally, at least in people’s imagination. Similarly, Ascione (2012), through the example of the festival of the Easter cheese bread (Torta di Pasqua) in Umbria, argues that a special bread that has historically been linked to Umbrian communities, has been rediscovered through a festival that celebrates it and claims it as typical.

The Torta di Pasqua (called Pizza di Pasqua in Terni province), has been in the past part of the sphere of food and breads linked to an “extraordinary food regime,” linked to the abundance of festive periods in sharp contrast with the scarcity of daily diets in rural Umbria under the sharecropping system (Baronti 1999). This bread is much richer in flavors and nutritional value (with eggs, animal fat and cheese) than ordinary bread, and it is linked to the celebration of Easter. In the rural world, Easter was one of the most relevant festivities since it was linked to rebirth: it marked the end of Lent (with its strict food avoidances) and it was connected to spring and new agricultural products. Women have usually made the Torta in the domestic sphere and there are records that testify that this product has been made in Umbria for at least two centuries. The Torta continues to be made at home in many Umbrian families, but can also be consumed every day of the year thanks to the many bakeries that produce it. In addition, since the year 2000, there has been a festival in the Province of Perugia to celebrate this product, the Festival della Torta di Pasqua Umbra. The advertisement for the festival (which shows a loaf of Torta placed on a geographical map of the territory) reads:

The Umbrian tradition says that at the end of Lent, just before Easter period, people worked hard at the Torta di Pasqua, obtained with the mix of eggs, flour and different types of cheese . . . . The Torta di Pasqua and its history represent a richness for the territory, and we can find a mixture of popular traditions and religiosity: the Torta di Pasqua was eaten at breakfast, with boiled eggs, blessed wine and cold cuts just matured from the pork that has been killed in January . . . . Our objective is not only the preservation of a recipe or an ingredient, but also its rediscovery on the daily table. (90)

One member of the local government involved in the organization of the festival said during an interview, “On the one hand we can say that we recover tradition, on the other we offer a specific market for local bakers, in fact the local bakers have responded well, there is an economic side for them as well” (91). During the festival people can discover the varieties of Torte, and there are practical demonstrations by local women experts since this is a preparation that must be transmitted through practice. He continues, “People want to rediscover who they are, but they also want to learn new things. I am Umbrian, they say, I do Umbrian things, this is my typical cuisine, but I also want to discover where other dishes come from” (91). In fact, among other activities, in 2010 the festival hosted the “National Champion of Pesto alla Genovese.”

This festival places the Torta in a scenario of “typical production”: although the original social context of production of Torta has changed (the rural extended family, the poverty of daily meals contrasted with the richness of Easter meals, the observance of food avoidances during Lent, the collective aspect of preparing festive foods), the making of this product persists as a local practice infused with new meanings, and it is now perceived as a hallmark of Umbrian identity. The festival is intended as an instrument that can preserve and reintroduce this practice, reaching people who are internal and external to the local community. In this case, the community is perceived as inherently local and regional rather than national, with events often coordinated from above (by politicians, administrators, associations, and so on) and not only from below. Groups seek representation and legitimacy of some traits of their culture through the preparation, the consumption, and the promotion of this special bread, shaping a new sense of community through the consumption of food refashioned as traditional (94).

The discourse around food festivals (sagre) and typical foods has become very relevant for Italian regions, and laws have been issued in order to regulate them, placing them inside the heritage discourse. For example, the Regione Umbria, in January 2015, issued a regulation in order to “promote local sagre and folk food festivals as a way to integrate Umbrian identity, as expression of traditional cultures of the territory,” and “to give value to people’s identity, their culture, their tradition, the civilization of their territory, its places and people in a national and international context” (Regione Umbria, 2015). This law seeks to regulate the proliferation of local food festivals that from the 1960s have become popular in villages and in small towns around the region, sometimes preparing and consuming food that is not perceived as local and traditional (like the now abandoned Festa della Nutella). We see a clear act of engineering the legitimacy of some foods over other. People and villages are often activated by the mechanism of festa and sagra (dining together at communal tables, volunteering, reinvesting money earned back into the community), but for administrators it is becoming more urgent to select a food that represents the territory as an expression of locality, discarding others. In fact, heritage foods are also linked to the economy of tourism, since heritage converts locations into destinations, and tourism makes them economically viable as exhibits of themselves (Long 2004; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1996). For example, Valeria Siniscalchi (2000) has studied how the sweet torrone is transformed into a typical food in the Campania Region, Italy, showing how identity becomes a “good” that can be sold in the tourist market: the history of different producers and laboratories in the village of San Marco is presented in the tourist brochures as a “common good,” transcending internal divisions and genealogies of different families. Being named as typical, this sweet becomes a symbolic entity that doesn’t belong to anybody in particular, and can be claimed by the village in its totality as its own.

The ethnographic and historical studies around typical foods show that heritage is a contested field where different groups exercise power and create meanings. Tradition is usually conceptualized as the permanence of the past into the present, a survival, something left from a past era that is now finished, something ancient that has remained more or less the same and that has been transferred in a new context, although tradition does not transfer the past in its totality, and works as a sort of filter of the past (Lenclud 2001). The notion of tradition also conveys a particular mode of transmission, usually what is passed to next generations orally, through words and by example as well. However, we could say, with Gerard Lenclud (2001), that tradition is an interpretation of the past with contemporary criteria, a “point of view” of the present. To understand its genesis, we must follow the past starting from the present. Tradition is a rear projection: we select what we declare ourselves to be determined by, and we present ourselves as the heirs of those whom we claimed as predecessors. Traditions actually entail “inverse filiation”: the offspring generate their parents, in a sort of paternity recognition. It is not the past that produces the present, but the present that produces the past. Of course it can be argued that a past must have existed, and somehow it must have also remained so that present generations can use it, and its invention is not totally free. Indeed the past imposes the limits within which we can direct our interpretations. Tradition is a form of rhetoric of what people think was in the past; it offers, to those who enunciate it and reproduce it, a tool to declare their difference and their authority (Lenclud 2001).

Intangible Cultural Heritage: From UNESCO to Food Museums

Food as heritage can thus take on many meanings and shapes in a variety of settings and at different scales: from the informality of individual producers and small-scale community events, to the more formal definitions of appellation of origins, or those provided by cultural institutions and international organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. Food entered official international recognition as world heritage after the General Conference of UNESCO met in Paris in 2003 to ratify the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cu ltural Heritage. The convention wanted to enrich international agreements concerning cultural and natural heritage by means of new provisions relating to intangible cultural heritage, having realized the role of communities and groups in maintaining and transmitting cultural diversity. For the convention, “intangible cultural heritage” means:

The practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills—as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith—that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.

The “intangible cultural heritage” is manifested inter alia in the following domains:

(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
(b) performing arts;
(c) social practices, rituals and festive events;
(d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
(e) traditional craftsmanship. (UNESCO, 2003).

The 2003 convention therefore represents a broader vision of culture compared to The World Heritage List of 1972, whose aim was the protection of cultural and natural heritage threatened by destruction not only by normal decay, but also by changing social and economic conditions. In that case, “cultural heritage” meant mainly groups of buildings, monuments, and sites, thus giving disproportionate representation to Western countries with their sites considered of “outstanding value” (UNESCO 1972; Di Giovine 2009 ). UNESCO tried to broaden its interpretation of what could be valued, and we had a shift from artifacts to people, their knowledge, and skills, to achieve a more holistic, living notion of heritage (Di Giovine and Brulotte 2014). After the Intangible Heritage Convention, states in Latin America and Europe that had already capitalized on their gastronomy began to put together a systematic narrative of their cuisine in order to be included on the list (Di Giovine and Brulotte 2014, 13).

In 2010, food made its first appearance on the UNESCO World Heritage list with the Mediterranean diet, the French gastronomic meal, Mexican/Michoacan cuisine, and Croatian gingerbread. While in Mediterranean countries, academic anthropologists were employed to conduct surveys, Mexico relied mainly on renowned chefs and tourist promoters (Brulotte and Starkman 2014). This has led to different conceptualizations of which foods and cuisines were worthy of being elevated to the status of international importance. The outcomes were different, with emphasis on a transnational diet with certain common products, a meal, a cuisine of a particular region, or a dish. However, a feature common to all of them was the use of heritage as a narrative to counteract the changing food cultures in those areas in a globalized world (Di Giovine and Brulotte 2014).

In 2008 the “Mediterranean diet” was proposed for inclusion on the list by Spain, Italy, Greece, and Morocco, but it wasn’t successful for a variety of reasons. First, it didn’t represent the style of the totality of people living in those countries and second, it was proposed by the Agricultural Ministries of those countries, without involving local communities. The definition of the Mediterranean diet at the beginning focused on a list of foods rather than the social and collective aspects that were implied in the definition of intangible heritage. The minister of Italian agriculture continued to work at this task, and employed a taskforce to catalogue and study the food practices of those communities chosen as “prototypical” of this lifestyle: the community of Cilento in Italy, where Ancel Keys, the American nutritionist who invented the term Mediterranean diet, lived and studied (Moro 2014, 85). Spain chose as a prototypical community the city of Soria; Greece the small village of Koroni; and Morocco the town of Chefchouen; these places were often chosen because they had a greater cultural and natural biodiversity. In 2013 Cyprus, Croatia, and Portugal were also added to the list. According to UNESCO:

The Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food. Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is a moment of social exchange and communication, an affirmation and renewal of family, group or community identity. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes values of hospitality, neighborliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity. It plays a vital role in cultural spaces, festivals and celebrations, bringing together people of all ages, conditions and social classes. It includes the craftsmanship and production of traditional receptacles for the transport, preservation and consumption of food, including ceramic plates and glasses. Women play an important role in transmitting knowledge of the Mediterranean diet: they safeguard its techniques, respect seasonal rhythms and festive events, and transmit the values of the element to new generations. Markets also play a key role as spaces for cultivating and transmitting the Mediterranean diet during the daily practice of exchange, agreement and mutual respect. (UNESCO 2013)

In her study on the history of the Mediterranean diet, the anthropologist Elisabetta Moro (2014) shows how UNESCO has constructed and defined this diet as ahistorical and archetypical. In the nomination documents, there are references to ancient Greece as the cultural reference for contemporary Southern Italy, without mentioning new products from the Americas, different migrations to the area, or the history of Christianity, as if the current “frugal abundance” praised so much as a sign of healthy living, came directly from an antiquity that wasn’t marked by change. The Mediterranean diet became ancestralized as an archaic and an autochthonous food style, in a sort of origin myth that came directly from ancient Greece. The UNESCO definition revision of 2013, however, included the idea that heritage is recreated daily, thus adopting a more dynamic notion of heritage (Moro 2014, 103). At the same time, the nomination triggered positive economic and cultural activities aimed at tourists and local people, thus starting a process of revitalization for groups and individuals living in areas of Southern Italy.

Clare Sammels (2014) argues that the inscription of particular cuisines on the UNESCO list of “intangible heritage” creates “haute traditional” cuisines linking elements perceived as local with those seen as cosmopolitan. These cuisines do not only identify preexisting foodways, but actively forge cuisines, linking into a single narrative elements that might a lso be divided by class, ethnicity, or context. The cuisines included on the list were presented as local and “authentic,” grounded in practices that are domestic, semi-private, and largely feminine (Sammells 2014, 144).

For the anthropologist Berardino Palumbo (2003; 2011), who conducted research on the processes of patrimonialization in Sicily, UNESCO not only produces objectified and essential “cultural things,” but transforms such “cultural things” into markers of collective identity that are essential and abstract, objectifying identities that become commodities in a global market. These labeled identities are then ideologically presented as “purely cultural” phenomena, separated from material, social, and political contexts of production. In such a scenario, “authenticity,” “typicality,” and “antiquity” become resources for institutionalized power to compete in what Herzfeld (2004) has called a “global hierarchy of values.” UNESCO thus removes social conflicts from its idea of culture because its main goal is to produce official symbols that can work as identity markers in a global market, and which can, de facto, act as instruments of a new neoliberal global governance (10).

Fabio Dei (2002), in his important work on contemporary popular culture, rather than refusing any ontological nature to the concept of patrimony, proposes that heritage should always be studied empirically in each social setting. He agrees with Palumbo on the proposition that social scientists should distance themselves from the categories that are used in local contexts, even when these categories are borrowed from the anthropological lexicon. However, the concept of heritage is not always just an ideological tool that masks economic, political powers, and nationalistic sentiments. On the contrary, reflexive, critical anthropologists can still select, give value to, and represent heritage, trying to avoid representations of cultural identities that are naturalized (108). This can be done, for example, without concealing the political and conflictual dimensions or focusing solely on the narrative of a glorious past, documenting not only permanence, but also changes, giving voice to the ephemeral and not only to the monumental, and conceding visibility to the anti-hegemonic practices that resist heritagization. He argues that ethnographic museums can offer a great occasion to apply a critical notion of heritage.

The idea of intangible patrimony (made of memories, know-how, experiences) is now central also to contemporary museographic debates. A number of museums today are no longer just a repository of objects, but a device for production of sense, an extension of places and landscapes, observing contexts and listening to the voices that inhabit them. Many museum curators have also shifted their focus from the preservation of objects to the people who use museums, affirming that museums have the role of “mediators” for education and civic cohabitation: to musealize today means to valorize objects, images, fragments of memories, documents that are chosen from a multitude of others to talk about histories and places (Lattanzi 1999). Thanks to this broader definition of cultural heritage, food has entered museums in a variety of ways. When food enters museum circuits, it usually transforms them. It is impossible to transform a food product into “just an object” to be looked at because it is a substance that often cannot be preserved and cannot become a reified cultural artifact, but must be treated as a “complex object” (Simeoni 1994) that is at once a biological reality and a social practice that is “micro-physically” dispersed in daily actions (Pizza 2012).

Before there were specialized museums of food and drink, food entered the scene in natural history museums, in agricultural museums, in historic house museums, and so on. Food now exists in galleries, temporary exhibitions, and in corporate buildings telling the story of a company and its products. In this case museums are designed to promote and nurture product mythologies, but they can also place the company in historical perspective and tell an interesting story (Williams 2014, 232). Italy is one of the countries in Europe with the most food museums. The guide “Musei del Gusto: mappa della memoria enogastronomica” (BAICR 2007) lists more than eighty-five museums scattered in different Italian regions: some are linked to ethnographic museums, showing traditional food-producing objects and techniques; others are financed by local food industries and are corporate museums. They cover a great variety of topics and products: olive oil, salt, prosciutto, bread, wine, sugar, lemon, vinegar, chestnuts, truffles, liquorice, and so on. Some focus on a single product, while others look at a plurality of processes. They contain old and modern objects; they celebrate single families or entire communities and regions. Some are financed by industries while others are the result of larger processes that involve government departments responsible for monuments and other treasures. These museums are relatively new in Italy. Open from the 1990s, they indicate, among other things, that tourists and travelers are not just satisfied by visiting famous collections or monumental museums. They want to relate to people and their work cultures, understanding their relationship with the natural landscape, reflecting on the economic activities that have transformed those landscapes, and they want to engage in “culinary tourism” (Long 2004) as a way to understand differences through food.

Italian food museums are usually far away from the capitals, scattered throughout the territory in a multitude of small centers, sometimes in rural landscapes. The “food museums” in the Province of Parma, Italy, for example, are composed of seven museums that present the history of iconic foods of the territory (prosciutto, pasta, tomato, Parmigiano-Reggiano, olive oil, salame, wine). According to the museum website:

The land, our territory, and the “art of food preparation” come together, not through an invention, but because of history which, over time, has molded these extraordinary products which are our ham and cured meat products, our cheese and the tomato preserves; products which are not “ours” but which during the course of the last century have found in Parma their natural capital.

The Museums, as conceived by the working group that has developed the concept since October 1999, should be a place of memory and a much needed monument to previous generations, but it must also have the function of showplace to illustrate and demonstrate the value of our products, which are today, more than ever, the stars of the Italian way of eating . . . . The combination should be an exciting attraction for younger generations, helping to develop culture with them. Foreign visitors will also be attracted to this cultural aspect thus consolidating the role that Parma is, quite rightly, assuming in Europe and elsewhere in the World.

Ecomuseums are also interesting examples that have employed a more holistic definition of cultural heritage. The concept of an ecomuseum first originated in France, with the intent of giving value to cultural and natural contexts through the creation of “diffused museums” with different access points and thematic itineraries that are historically rooted in the places they represent. They work as “centers of memories” and they crea te new access codes to territories, favoring and promoting an integrated knowledge of natural, cultural, artistic, gastronomic, and social aspects (Davis 2011). The European Network of Ecomuseums (2004) defines an ecomuseum as a dynamic space in which communities preserve, interpret, and manage their heritage for sustainable development. Ideally, it is based on a pact by people to take care of their territory. In this case, territory is conceived not just as a physical place, but as the story of people living in that territory, together with the signs left from previous generations. The prefix “eco,” in this case, means “home,” since the first users of these museums should be local people rather than only tourists and visitors. That is why there is a strong focus on laboratories, intended as places where memories get composed and re-elaborated, traditional techniques are passed on and artisanal activities are proposed again, keeping also in mind the sustainable economic development of marginal territories.

According to Georges Henri Rivière (1992), the ecomuseum is like a mirror in which people observe themselves, in which they try to understand the territory they inhabit and the life of the population that came before them. It is a mirror that populations offer to their guests so that their work and their lives are better understood and respected. Founded with such a declaration of intent, the Valnerina Ecomuseum in Umbria, Italy, created by CEDRAV (Centro per la documentazione la ricerca antropologica in Valnerina e nella dorsale appenninica Umbra) was founded with the aim of revitalizing this mountain area through the creation of a “diffused museum.” It is developed through different scattered “antennas,” so called because they receive and then send information to the surrounding territories, serving as an amplifier. The antennas are dedicated to hemp fiber, folk forms of devotion, folk poetry, and agricultural and food production: olive oil, truffle, spelt and the art of norcini, processing pork for prosciutto and salame. The itinerary for touring the ecomuseum is circular, thus it can be entered from any direction.

Of course ecomuseums also run the risk of freezing cultures with a focus on “timeless traditions” and rural life, and they risk focusing on the identity of small communities eliminating all references to alterity, thus serving to exclude rather than include. It will be interesting to see if in the future there will be space for more urban or industrial food ecomuseums, where the hypermodern and the past exist side by side, where contemporary rituals are given the same importance as traditional cultural aspects. Would people participate in the life of a museum that investigates, for example, modern supermarket shopping experiences? Would this museum be possible, or even desirable? The anthropologist Daniel Miller (1998), in his book A Theory of Shopping, shows us that shopping at supermarkets retains meanings linked to love and sacrifice, and is a highly ritualized experience. Is this contemporary food experience worthy of being included in future notions of cultural heritage?

To conclude, the construction of food as heritage is not univocal, and scholars and professionals are adopting this concept in more critical ways by highlighting, rather than concealing, its processual nature. Heritage discourses shape representations of food at different levels and are an interesting field of study since they can be considered a barometer of cultural sensibilities, but most importantly, as LeBesco and Naccarato (2008) argue, “these representations actively produce cultural sensibilities and the possibility of transgression” (2). Future researchers will have the task of investigating if museum curators, international organizations, tourist operators, local communities, and those practitioners who are active agents in the classification, promotion, and circulation of knowledge and economic exchange around food, will adopt more or less dynamic definitions of heritage, and for which purposes. Will change, conflicts, and politics have more space in the narratives and practices that reinvent food as cultural heritage?


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