Skip to navigation – Site map

Edible Identities: Food as Cultural Heritage by Ronda L. Brulotte and Michael A. Di Giovine (Eds.)

Raúl Matta

Full text

BRULOTTE R.L. and DI GIOVINE M.A (Eds.) (2014), Edible Identities: Food as Cultural Heritage, Ashgate, [Burlington, VT] 237 p.

1This compilation of essays, edited by Assistant Professors of Anthropology Ronda L. Brulotte and Michael A. Di Giovine, has its roots in the first international congress of the UNESCO/UNITWIN Network “Culture, Tourism, Development,” held in Quebec City in 2010. Its focus lies on the ways in which food creates social bonds as it simultaneously marks off and maintains cultural differences. Although the relationship between food and social and cultural identities is not precisely new as an anthropological research theme, the volume’s contribution to the understanding of emerging “edible identities” is situated and actualized within the context of the modernity of food and food consumption, and therefore provides important insights into one of the major practices that currently reframe the above relationship: heritage-making. Heritage is outlined as a process that “imparts particular value claims on people, their histories, social structures, and traditions” (p. 2) on local, regional, and international scales. The editors and their co-authors show that, in a world that promotes multiculturalism and markets ethnicity, conceptualizing food as a marker of heritage opens up an avenue for societies and individuals to gain cultural awareness, freely assert their identities, claim sovereignty, and aspire to growing visibility and economic capitalization. Categorizations falling into the realm of food heritage – such as local, traditional, authentic, and “ethnic” – echo the nostalgia of social spaces where eaters are expected to live free of anxiety (sheltered by culinary cultures they can identify and be identified with) and counter fears both of identity erosion and of economic loss within the global forces of the food and tourism industries. The volume explores specific cases of food heritage-building facing these challenges and offers a thoughtful account of the impact of culinary tourism; food narratives built within the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage framework; the complex cultural and economic relations that involve diverse local and regional foodways.

2Edible Identities is divided into an introduction and fourteen chapters. The introduction focuses on the social and symbolic aspects of food and its significance in heritage building. It sets the tone of the entire book, as it discusses the cultural and political value of food, defines cultural heritage as fluid and unfixed social constructs, and posits food heritage as a powerful device through which identities are strategically articulated and negotiated.

3Most of the chapters analyze the role of food in the constitution and flagging of ethnic, national, regional, and local identities. They reflect the ways in which many cities, provinces, regions and nation-states utilize elements of “their” foodways to distinguish themselves from (and compete with) their neighbors or with their peers. Heather Paxson argues that the production of United States artisanal cheese is culturally influenced by the typically American celebration of entrepreneurial innovation which, in this context, consists not in advocating the authorship of old and traditional processes and recipes as Europe does, but in imitating, modifying, and adding value to old, foreign cheeses. In doing so, American cheese-makers “establish their own artisanal authenticity as innovative and properly American.”(p. 37). Warren Belasco presents the “place branding” strategy aiming at creating terroir for Washington D.C, “a city historically oblivious, if not overtly hostile to its own roots, culture, and environment” (p. 39) and in urge to be considered by local residents as a place “deserving of regard, reciprocity, and responsibility” (p.45). D.C’s culinary place branding strategy consists of three steps: the identification of a commensal landscape, entrepreneurial audacity, and the creation of compelling myths. Another case involving myths as source of tradition is that of Salamander Brandy, the illusive and supposedly hallucinogenic national drink of Slovenia. Miha Kozorog shows, however, that the folklore providing the drink with a “cool” heritage status among Slovenian youth is not sufficient to make salamander brandy a national symbol, as its production occurs within marginalized populations. This case illustrates that the value of cultural heritage can hardly be dissociated from the value of the people that produce it. Cristina Grasseni focuses on the “name war” between two Italian mountain cheeses claiming heritage status based on their territorial peculiarities. She demonstrates how these terroir-related attempts heightened competition at the local stage and unveiled unequal access to political and economic networks allowing some producers to become heritage entrepreneurs, and putting others out of the cheese business altogether. Terroir-based constructs are also highlighted by Greg De Saint Maurice in his examination of Kyoto’s heirloom vegetables, kyōyasai. The author argues that, paradoxically as it may seem, the authenticity appeal of these vegetables has less to do with their taste than with their appearance and shape, considered as more suitable standards for their traceability in time and their certification as heritage food. Michael A. Di Giovine links the rise of the Italian town of Pietrelcina as a site of pilgrimage tourism to the shift of its local cuisine, cucina casareccia, from a domestic, humble, and ordinary cuisine to a public, extra-ordinary, and value-added heritage cuisine. Drawing on Anthony Wallace’s revitalization theory (Wallace, 1956), the author describes current cucina casareccia as an entrepreneurial cuisine that looks to the past, re-inventing traditions for a way forward. Food and cuisine may also work to problematize the notion of “ethnic” groups, as Psyche Williams-Forson’s chapter demonstrates. Her examination of different food understandings, tastes, and imaginaries among African Americans are clearly indicative of how, in the collective American imaginary, many ethnicities are downplayed and grouped together behind one race. On regional and national scales, Josep García Fuentes et al. describe the revitalization of Barcelona markets as part of a wider movement to demarcate Catalan culinary identity within the Spanish nation-state. On the other side of the Atlantic, Castellanos and Bergstresser explore the connections between corn and Mexican identity. They emphasize that the discourse of corn as national heritage lingers on despite global and national changes that have significantly transformed the production of corn and the preparation of tortillas. Finally, Carole Counihan argues that the cultural heritage discourse in food activism, although it mobilizes support for local economies and traditional food knowledge, does not easily include non-local people, cuisines, and cultures. Based on recent activist experiences in Italy, the author points out that extreme food localism can erase immigrants’ contribution to food systems. She also stresses the need to devote attention to issues of labor, class, race-ethnicity, and gender that may arise within food heritage-making.

4Some chapters address particularly the influence of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage framework in the ways in which food and cuisines are conceptualized, commoditized, and marketed. More precisely, they analyze how UNESCO heritage policies are appropriated, transformed and resisted by communities and particular actors. In this regard, Claire Sammells argues that the French and Mexican food-related nominations to the UNESCO List of Intangible Heritage are closely connected to stakeholders’ commitment to increase the appeal of France and Mexico’s national cuisines among cosmopolitan audiences. Ronda Brulotte and Alvin Starkman examine the tensions that arise in claiming Caldo de Piedra (stone soup) as cultural property of an indigenous community in Mexico. With this, the authors provide an example of how social actors may appropriate collective heritage sanctions – such as the UNESCO lntangible Heritage “label” – for particular purposes. They also show that historical inconsistencies about traditional food knowledge are not impediments for inventing culinary traditions. Two chapters are concerned with attempts to comply with the UNESCO framework in order to ensure the future of occupational groups. Regina Bendix analyzes the reasons that led the German Federation of the Bakery Trade to opt for an inscription of “German bread” as intangible heritage rather than choosing to use “Geographical Indication” as a means to help German breads receive greater attention. She demonstrates that what is at stake in adopting the UNESCO Convention is not the protection and promotion of organoleptic qualities of bread, but to increase the esteem and appreciation of an endangered craft. Susan Terrio presents a similar case for French artisanal chocolatiers who, despite not being immersed in a community crisis, struggle to identify their products and skills as of distinctively French heritage.

5In addition to the specific aspects of each case study, it is possible to notice some strong overarching topics that are amply discussed in broader heritage research: (re)invention of traditions, nation building, construction of legitimacy, and contestation. However, due to the interweaving of these topics within heritage-making transactions, a thematic division into sections would have been helpful both for the reader and to provide sharply formulated conclusions (in a postface, for example).

6Before concluding, I will add one further topic to the list above: heritage entrepreneurship (Pfeilstetter, 2015). Indeed, many chapters refer to “entrepreneurship” to describe how a number of actors manifest interest in benefiting from heritage discourses and engage in market-like competition for economic, political, and symbolic resources. Thus, the exploration of opportunities from economic and non-economic profit come for an understanding of the current trend of food heritage as “proactive” phenomena: as a regime-option that is change-oriented and stands for anticipatory politics rather than relying on the response-oriented nature accorded to conservation practices. With a stronger focus on the entrepreneurial dimension, food heritage could have been more clearly conceptualized as a tool for facing conflicts of cultural and economic distribution that arise from the relative power and value accorded to various cultures and cultural practices within a given historical context.

7In sum, the volume successfully provides a context in which to understand heritage strategies used to construct “edible identities”. And perhaps more important is that it also makes clear the need for further research on food heritage-making around the world. This book is highly recommended for scholars and students of anthropology, heritage and cultural studies, and for anyone interested in the connections between food, culture, and identity.

Top of page


WALLACE, A. (1956). Revitalization Movements, American Anthropologist 58: 264-281.

PFEILSTETTER, R. (2015). Heritage entrepreneurship. Agency-driven promotion of the Mediterranean diet in Spain, International Journal of Heritage Studies 21(3): 215-231.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Raúl Matta, « Edible Identities: Food as Cultural Heritage by Ronda L. Brulotte and Michael A. Di Giovine (Eds.) », Anthropology of food [Online], été 2015, comptes-rendus de lecture, Online since 05 August 2015, connection on 19 April 2018. URL :

Top of page

About the author

Raúl Matta

By this author

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page