Is It Wrong to Rank World Cuisines?

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has called for UNESCO to add French gastronomy to its World Heritage List. The list includes “851 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value.”

At present, the list includes castles, cathedrals, national parks, historical landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, and even French wine-producing regions such as Saint-Emilion and the Loire Valley. But the idea of adding French cuisine to the list is facing some opposition. Charles Bremner of the London Times says that “it seems bizarre to claim that something as intangible and alive as cooking can be protected like a monument.” He makes a good point. Bremner also notes that UNESCO turned down Mexico’s 2005 bid to have its culinary heritage added to the list.

Carlo Petrini of the Slow Food movement disagrees with France’s UNESCO bid on the grounds that it’s wrong to rank world cuisines:

‘Why should French gastronomy be considered better than any other?’ asked Carlo Petrini, head of the influential Italian-based movement which promotes high-quality, local food as a remedy to fast-food culture.

‘To make gastronomy part of world heritage is an excellent idea, but all countries should do so, not just France!’

But it doesn’t really make sense for UNESCO to recognize every country’s gastronomy. While the UN can at least try to protect historic locations and cultural landmarks, there isn’t much it can do to protect a cuisine. In Bremner’s words, “Will Unesco police pounce on cooks who mess up their mayonnaise? Will it protect cassoulet and bouillabaisse or ensure that French restaurants in San Francisco serve real camembert?” With all due respect to mayonnaise and bouillabaisse, I think it’s fair to say that UNESCO has bigger fish to fry.