Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Intangible Memories Preserved

Thinking about food is an easy way to evoke individual memories. A smell or taste can mentally transport a person to a time or place in our past with little effort. However, while it is easy to bring up these memories, it is harder to capture them for posterity. Like other "intangible culture" such as languages and social practices of communities, foods are often passed down in an undocumented form. It is a challenge for cultural heritage professionals to secure their remembrance in a formalized way. While reading "The Idea of Cultural Heritage" by Derek Gillman this week, I've begun tying together some of my recent work related to what cultural heritage is, what it means, how it's important to an individual, and how it is important to us collectively as humans.

I have been working on a program about capturing and relating individual life stories with a colleague, professional organizer Sue West. Our workshop discusses why it's important to tell an individual's life story, how to tell a life story, and how one story connects to a larger community. The program primarily focuses on how the objects in your life tell something about you. But, a few weeks ago, I came across this article to share with Sue so we could discuss the idea of intangible heritage and incorporate it into our workshop:

Write your own food biography: my life in 10 dishes.

After I shared the link with Sue, she immediately wrote back to me with a list of her most memorable life dishes that included things as diverse as her mom's gazpacho, french dishes from a junior year abroad, and Vermont cheddar. Excited that she connected with the food idea, I shot back an e-mail listing the cuisine with which I deeply connect:

Aunt Louise's Sweet Potato Pie (Aunt Louise is a Cherokee and I think this native American dish is amazing) Chicken gizzards (mom and I love them, but I haven't found another person who does) Pickled herring (my favorite "Jewish" food. Reminds me of my heritage....though I might add gefilte fish, blintzes, and matzoh ball soup in with the herring) lamb w cucumber (the first fancy dish that my husband made for me when he discovered he likes to cook) Cheesecake (reminds me of my favorite diner growing up) cookies (mom used to make them fresh every week) Heath bar ice cream floats (reminds me of my first boyfriend)...

But, while these themes are directly tied and specific to my own experience, everyone will be able to relate to something among them. This is how our individual heritage relates to a greater community. Also, while one may find a connection to my list, one may also have something to add, giving a new dimension to this culture I'm relating. For example, someone may lock onto my diner cheesecake and start thinking about their local diner cheesecake or other local diner dishes. We can contemplate a whole diner heritage. Can we compare how my little New York diner differs from a diner in the American west? Or, we can think about my ethnic heritage instead of my geographical locale. While I gravitate toward pickled herring, perhaps your ethnic food of choice is spaghetti and meatballs? We can even blend the ideas. While I grew up on Long Island with Jewish foods wafting from the windows of my house, my next store neighbors were Italian Catholic, fully embracing a meatball culture.

To solidify this food culture idea in my mind, last night through serendipity, I came across this article in my search for cultural news:
UNESCO “Cultural Heritage List” to Include the Mediterranean Diet http://bit.ly/aDG5D2 . It brought me full circle to my e-mail back and forth with Sue. Ideas of preserving this intangible heritage are reverberating around the world, from your kitchen to the board of UNESCO. Consider what aspects of your culture are worth preserving that are yet to be documented. Share your recipes with your children and your local historical society. Share your thoughts about who you are and what influences made you the way you are. We will all be enriched for it.

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