Poutine should be on the UN’s cultural heritage list

Poutine should be on the UN’s cultural heritage list
Poutine should be on the UN’s cultural heritage list

The dish has become an emblem of our gastronomic heritage worldwide, whether we like it or not

By Sylvain Charlebois

The French baguette has just been recognized by UNESCO as an intangible heritage. Same thing for tea culture in China and 46 other gastronomic elements. Cuban rum made the list this year.

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), a division of the United Nations that promotes peace through science and culture, also honours gastronomic knowledge from all over the globe. Neapolitan pizza, Korean kimchi, and Belgian beer have also been honoured in the past.

UNESCO is best known for awarding honorary World Heritage titles to well-known geographical sites. There are 20 in Canada, including Old Quebec, the city of Lunenburg in Nova Scotia, the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, and Banff National Park in Alberta. These World Heritage Sites are areas explicitly designated to preserve places of cultural, natural, and historical significance.

But UNESCO also exalts the intangible in our kitchens. Each year, UNESCO celebrates all the culinary traditions that deserve to be recognized. Recipes, dishes, food inventions – anything goes. The aim is to distinguish the artisanal knowledge and culture surrounding certain essential elements of tables around the world. This year the discourse revolved around French and Chinese tables.

Since 2008, UNESCO has added 678 items to its list of intangible heritage. Canada still has no single dish or product on the UNESCO list, while France has 26 recognized elements, and China has 43 different elements. These are the two countries with the most culinary items on the list right now.

Unlike Chinese tea or the French baguette, for example, our gastronomic history is relatively recent. Moreover, Canada is a very young country, just like the United States and Australia which also have no element on the UNESCO list. Our country’s youth does not help our cause, of course, but the new world has developed some interesting dishes and ingredients over the years.

Maple syrup, shepherd’s pie, pea soup, Nanaimo bars, Halifax’s Donair and beaver tails are part of several lists dedicated to recognizing Canadian culinary inventions that have marked our history.

But the dish that now regularly tops the list is the famous poutine. This dish, perceived by some as unsightly, has become an emblem of our gastronomic heritage worldwide, whether we like it or not.

Poutine, first offered in Warwick, Que. in 1957 and invented in Drummondville with its three fundamental ingredients – fries, cheese curds, and gravy – in 1964, has a unique history associated with cheese curds. Admittedly, fries and sauce are ingredients that we find all over the world. But the knowledge and know-how of cheese curds are unique. This curd cheddar from Quebec has an entirely distinct background that has not been thoroughly documented. The history of cheese curds deserves further research, but the dish that made cheese curds famous was poutine. For nearly 70 years, poutine and cheese curds have been inseparable.

UNESCO should investigate the heritage merits of poutine and Quebec cheese. Putting our culinary elitist minds aside, the contribution of these two is obvious.

The other important legacy of cheese curds and poutine is the origin of the ingredient and the dish. Very rare are the intangible elements recognized by UNESCO that come from regions or villages. Most items on UNESCO’s intangible heritage list come from large cities and urban centres. Trends often start from cities. Few dishes arrive from the countryside to influence restaurant menus in major centres.

The art of Neapolitan pizza, which includes three basic ingredients, just like poutine, was recognized in 2017 – another reason why poutine and Quebec cheese curds belong to the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

The catch is that an inscription on this list can only be proposed by a State Party to the 2003 UNESCO Convention on Intangible Heritage. Canada has unfortunately not ratified the Convention to date. Shame.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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