Chiles chilacas, cultivated in Queréndaro, Michoacán, are spread on traditional petates (woven reed mats)to dry in the late summer sun. All photos and their captions are copyright Mexico Cooks! unless otherwise noted.
At its meeting in Nairobi, Kenya on November 16, 2010, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) announced that Mexico, and particularly the state of Michoacán, had been officially inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
According to UNESCO, "The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.
Dra. Gloria López Morales, director of the Mexico City-based Conservatorio de la Cultura Gastronómica Mexicana, spearheaded the latest drive for Mexico to achieve the UNESCO award. Many, many people worked with her to make the dream a reality.
"While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.
"The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next. The social and economic value of this transmission of knowledge is relevant for minority groups and for mainstream social groups within a State, and is as important for developing States as for developed ones.
"Intangible cultural heritage is:
- Traditional, contemporary and living at the same time: intangible cultural heritage does not only represent inherited traditions from the past but also contemporary rural and urban practices in which diverse cultural groups take part;
- Inclusive: we may share expressions of intangible cultural heritage that are similar to those practised by others. Whether they are from the neighbouring village, from a city on the opposite side of the world, or have been adapted by peoples who have migrated and settled in a different region, they all are intangible cultural heritage: they have been passed from one generation to another, have evolved in response to their environments and they contribute to giving us a sense of identity and continuity, providing a link from our past, through the present, and into our future. Intangible cultural heritage does not give rise to questions of whether or not certain practices are specific to a culture. It contributes to social cohesion, encouraging a sense of identity and responsibility which helps individuals to feel part of one or different communities and to feel part of society at large;
- Representative: intangible cultural heritage is not merely valued as a cultural good, on a comparative basis, for its exclusivity or its exceptional value. It thrives on its basis in communities and depends on those whose knowledge of traditions, skills and customs are passed on to the rest of the community, from generation to generation, or to other communities;
- Community-based: intangible cultural heritage can only be heritage when it is recognized as such by the communities, groups or individuals that create, maintain and transmit it – without their recognition, nobody else can decide for them that a given expression or practice is their heritage."
Sra. Chef Alicia Gironella de'Angeli headed the group of high-level chefs, culinary professionals and food aficionados in Mexico which, in 2000, began to organize the 2005 application for the UNESCO designation. For the next five years, Sra. Gironella continued to work toward the goal that Mexico finally achieved in 2010.
"Traditional Mexican cuisine is a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners. It is made possible by collective participation in the entire traditional food chain: from planting and harvesting to cooking and eating.
"The basis of the system is founded on corn, beans and chile; unique farming methods such as milpas (rotating swidden fields of corn and other crops) and chinampas (man-made farming islets in lake areas); cooking processes such as nixtamal-ization (lime-hulling maize, which increases its nutritional value); and singular utensils including grinding stones and stone mortars. Native ingredients such as varieties of tomatoes, squashes, avocados, cocoa and vanilla augment the basic staples. Mexican cuisine is elaborate and symbol-laden, with everyday tortillas and tamales, both made of corn, forming an integral part of Day of the Dead offerings.
Preparing blue corn masa (dough) on a volcanic stone metate (grinding stone). This masa, used to make tortillas, is made from freshly ground nixtamal-ized blue corn, moistened as needed with water. It has no other ingredients.
Atole de grano (corn soup prepared with fresh anise) dates to the milenia before Mexico's Spanish conquest. All ingredients for this delicious soup are original to the New World, as are the copper that is hand-hammered to make this cazo (cooking pot) and the pine that's hand-carved to form the cuchara (spoon).
"Collectives of female cooks and other practitioners devoted to raising crops and traditional cuisine are found in the State of Michoacán and across Mexico. Their knowledge and techniques express community identity, reinforce social bonds, and build stronger local, regional and national identities. Those efforts in Michoacán also underline the importance of traditional cuisine as a means of sustainable development."
Charales (tiny fish), used in Mexico's cuisine for thousands of years, are still abundant in our lakes. These fish are eaten whole in many different preparations. Click on any photo for a larger view.
The UNESCO decision as it relates to Mexico:
"The Committee decides that [this element] satisfies the criteria for inscription on the Representative List, as follows:
- R1: Traditional Mexican cuisine is central to the cultural identity of the communities that practise and transmit it from generation to generation;
- R2: Its inscription on the Representative List could enhance the visibility of intangible cultural heritage and promote respect for cultural diversity and human creativity;
- R3: Current and planned safeguarding measures include consultations and research projects as well as practical training, with the support of the State and the communities concerned;
- R4: Practitioners participated actively in the nomination process and provided their free, prior and informed consent;
- R5: Traditional Mexican cuisine is included in the Inventory of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mexico maintained by the National Council for Culture and Arts."
All of us who have been involved in this enormous effort, all of the hundreds of traditional cooks who keep the flame of Mexico's ancient culinary excellence alive, all of those who believe in the sanctity of Mexico's trinity of corn, beans, and chile, and all who simply crave a meal of truly Mexican cuisines celebrate UNESCO's recognition of Mexico's cooks, villages, culinary heritage and her tremendous worth. We who are from Michoacán invite you to get to know what UNESCO calls 'the Michoacán paradigm'. We simply call it home cooking.
Special thanks to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization for the use of excerpts from its public documents.
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