Written by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
On November 30, the French baguette was formally added to the United Nations’ Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The bureaucrats had finally gotten hold of a glorified bread stick, adding it to their spreadsheet list of cultural items worthy of preservation. A delighted French President took the moment to gloat at the French Embassy in Washington. “In these few centimetres passed from hand to hand lies the spirit of French know-how,” stated a glowing Emmanuel Macron.
The list, for which UNESCO is responsible for observing, includes some 678 traditions from 140 countries. The Slovenians have beekeeping, for instance; Tunisia has harissa; Zambia can call upon the significance of the Kalela dance. Such traditions can span several countries: the listing of states for the Lipizzan horse breeding tradition reads like an inventory of the lost Austro-Hungarian empire, echoing Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch.
The baguette, one of France’s grandest gastronative examples, is celebrated as a labour-intensive product marked by patience. Lengthy periods of fermentation are required, including wheat of appropriate quality, leaving a distinct gold crispness. Fats are eschewed, as are any improvers or additives, which are prohibited by the decree of September 13, 1993. The characteristic cuts with 14 facets act like ceremonial scars. It is also the hallmark of the traditional boulangeries, which are struggling, notably in rural areas, to survive.
“Many have tried to make it; they just made something industrial which has no taste,” the grinning Macron exclaimed. “And this ‘French touch’ we have in our baguette is the one we have in other sectors: It’s this additional know-how, this extra soul. So, congratulations to our baguette for today.”
Macron’s dig at the industrialised, quickly made baguette is well-founded, and it was appropriate for him to be doing it in the land of mass-industrialised food practices. But the baguette has become, in time, a French imperial marker with local variations. The Vietnamese famously have their Bánh mì, which has become an international food presence across the global diaspora, though modifications in terms of part substitution of rice flour for wheat flour take place. The influence in western and northern Africa is also clear. The streets of Dakar are marked by baguette stands.
As food is as much a political statement as a culturally boisterous one, political figures expressed their delight at the baguette’s listing. Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak tweeted about the ubiquity of the baguette in terms of French habits: “morning, noon and evening, the baguette is part of the daily life of the French”. The listing was “a great recognition for our artisans and the unifying places that are our bakeries.”
Another important figure in promoting the baguette’s case for UNESCO recognition, Dominique Anract, called the announcement “good news in a complicated environment.” As president of the National Federation of French Bakeries and Patisseries, Anract almost struck a wistful note about old habits. “When a baby cuts his teeth, his parents give him a stump of baguette to chew off.”
Much of this belies the fact that the French, as serious as they are about eating bread, consume less of it and are facing changing lifestyles and the hollowing out of its evocative rural villages. Since 1950, the consumption of bread has fallen by a startling two-thirds. But modern food politics demands modern laws; and a recent promulgation demands the use of certain percentages regarding the use of wheat. Eventually, much is at stake for the continued making and consumption of this thin bread morsel.
For an individual such as Steven Kaplan, a Brooklyn-born historian who has spent almost all his academic life focused on bread, the UNESCO addition could only cause displeasure. The ecstasy of French politicians about the baguette belies the fact that such a listing will simply serve to encourage inferior alternatives. Under the generic term of “baguette de pain”, as opposed to “baguette de tradition”, the white flour baguette, “which is generally of very mediocre quality” is legitimised. “For me, who has long campaigned for artisanal savoir-faire, this is an appalling regression.”
Whenever a committee meets, politics will arise. The decision making of UNESCO is no exception. Was there a reason why Ukrainian borscht soup needed to make the list? Yes, according to committee members, because of Russia’s warring efforts in Ukraine. A gastronomic threat had been identified, with UNESCO claiming that “armed conflict has threatened the viability” of the dish, as “people not only cannot cook or grow local vegetables for borscht, but also cannot gather [to make the dish] … undermining the social and cultural well-being of communities.”
Borscht brings its own brand of culinary politics, and charting countries which consume this soup is to revisit dead empires and their shadows: Imperial Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Igor Bednyakov, chef at the Moscow restaurant Bochka, advises that the Cossacks cooked up the stew during the siege of Azov in 1637, a fascinating twist to the tale that has done little to neutralise Ukrainian-Russian debates on the issue.
Ukrainian food nativists, for one, point to earlier dates and the addition of beetroot, while the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is adamant that borscht is a “symbol of traditional cuisine” and a “timeless classic” of Russian origin. Not only do they want to steal our territory, comes the Ukrainian retort, but they want to appropriate our dishes. Be that as it may, empires may perish but the dishes linger, their origins of necessity lost.
The UNESCO listing of borscht was merely another front in the battle between Kyiv and Moscow. “Victory in the war for borscht is ours!” exclaimed Ukrainian Minister for Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko. Food, as the late Anthony Bourdain reminded us, really is politics.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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