Recently, UNESCO awarded the "gastronomic meal of the French" a place on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Beyond monuments and objects, UNESCO describes cultural heritage as including "traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts."
So, among the 47 new entries, there are French meals, Peking opera, falconry, flamenco dancing, Korean wooden architecture and two regional styles of Iranian carpet-weaving.
UNESCO lauded the French meal as "a customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups, such as births, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, achievements, and reunions. It is a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking. The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature."
My thought: UNESCO, have you been to Lebanon? Greece? Experienced a traditional mezze, shared by families and sometimes even villages, outdoors, the table straining with as many tasty dishes as it can hold and Ouzo-fueled laughter going on for hours? Surely France doesn't have a lock on this sort of thing.
Even Jean-Robert Pitte, president of the University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) and head of France's nomination committee, admitted in an online article: "This exists in a lot of other countries. But," he added, "we have a certain form of gastronomy, with the marriage of food and wine, the succession of dishes, the way of setting the table, of talking about it, that are specifically French."
So, Lebanon, start gearing up. You too, Korea, for Balwoo-gongyang, the Buddhist meal of modest bowls of rice and vegetables signifying equality, thrift, and togetherness.
Considering you would need a crowbar to pry them apart, it's true that food and wine in France share a special bond. But this is also the case in countries such as Italy and Greece (who also made the list along with Spain and Morocco for "the Mediterranean diet"). Succession of dishes? There is that after-dinner salad and the cheese course (high on my list of "reasons to stay" whenever I have a particularly bad day). As for setting the table… the French don't use bread plates. That's all I can think of.
Pitte is right about that last part, though. I've consumed many a lengthy French meal where almost the entire conversation was dominated by food. It starts like this: "This smoked salmon is really good." Then: " Oui. You know what else is really good? Salmon eggs on lentils." "Did somebody say eggs? I had the most incredible omelet last week at Café Michel." "Bof, Café Michel? C'est la merde. The only omelet worth eating is at…" and on and on it goes. Sometimes there is shouting. Almost always there is wine.
Certainly, similar conversations occur in miniscule Japanese apartments or Mongolian yurts, with appropriate substitutions.
To be fair, countries who receive UNESCO recognition are Parties to the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. They apply and lobby for inclusion of their particular patrimony. This is not a flight of fancy but the result of substantive research and presentation on the part of candidate countries, and careful consideration on the part of an intergovernmental committee. This year, Mexico also applied on behalf of its native cuisine, and was duly honored.
So, Lebanon, start gearing up. You too, Korea, for Balwoo-gongyang, the Buddhist meal of modest bowls of rice and vegetables signifying equality, thrift, and togetherness. The Vietnamese Tết festival, with its special dishes and reverence for children and elders. Passover, Thanksgiving and beyond.
The good news is that UNESCO is bestowing significance upon the starting point of all cultural heritage—breaking bread with friends and family. Underlining the importance of togetherness, taste, and the relationship between humans and the bounty of nature. You don't need to come to France to do this, or go to Mexico (though I heartily recommend both). Happily, such "intangibles" exist everywhere.
Amelia Smith moved from San Francisco to Paris in 1997, all the better to write about travel, food and culture without borders.