There's a UNESCO meeting going on in Nairobi this week that French chefs and politicos are sweating: whether or not French gastronomy should be added to the organization's list of intangible world treasures -- endangered languages, oral traditions, crafts, dance and music, and rituals -- worthy of protection. If it makes the list (and apparently the odds are strong), it will be the first gastronomic tradition to be so recognized. Its competitors include the Mediterranean diet (being championed jointly by Spain, Italy, Greece, and Morocco) and the maize-based traditions of Mexico.
When I first heard about this campaign, which has been both longstanding and high profile garnering strong and vocal support from President Sarkozy and many Michelin-starred heavyweights, I couldn't help rolling my eyes. Sure at its best, French cuisine has the reputation for excellence and finesse. And yes, I know, that for many years, perhaps centuries, it has been held up as the model, a bar which other cuisines could never seem to surmount. But how can you compare an aligot and a risotto? bouillebaise and menudo? quenelles and dumplings? That I really don't get. And are these traditions so threatened by the pace of change and globalization that recognition by UNESCO will change how the French eat or how the rest of the world sees them?
Interestingly, the latest dossier for French gastronomy focuses not on what's on the plate but everything around it: the art of planning the menu, setting the table, pairing the wines, and of course, the endless conversations about food before, during, and after. I'm guessing that this concept was a political maneuver, an effort to move past two previous failures for the UNESCO decisionmakers to fish or cut bait. And while all those things are critically important to the French and the French way of life, it seems to me, well, a bit watered down and lacking a certain bite.
If France gets the thumbs down, I suppose it's back to the drawing board. But if it wins, what does it all mean anyway?
To learn more, read Agence France Presse's English language account.
Update: C'est fait! France 24 has all the details on the UNESCO decision to put French gastronomy on the list.