Preservation Analogies: Food and Culture

In March 2012, the cultural property research team undertook a joint excursion to Munich and the Allgäu region and focused our collective attention on geographic indications or G.I.s. We visited the ministry of agriculture, interest groups in the realm of beer and cheese production as well as a small cheese dairy to gain some insight on how actors at different levels of food production pursue European Union G.I. protections and related instruments in order to promote and protect particular food products. These encounters and conversations yielded important insights on the governance structures and practices that are emerging around this particular instrument. But spending time with everyone and mulling over the other project foci our research group pursues, comparative thoughts began to emerge. As we were standing outdoors on the last evening around a spring time fire, inhaling the scent of burning, slightly wet wood, one colleague jokingly noted that we were all getting smoked like a good sausage. This set one’s mind in a Lévi-Straussian mood, contemplating the analogies between preserving food and preserving culture.

The territorially bounded foods we had been talking about – several types of cheese, a particular sausage, beers brewed in particular fashion – were with few exceptions (a locally grown horseradish and a regional type of asparagus) the result of recipes geared to transform raw foods into more durable and value-added products. Setting aside the fact that G.I.s themselves honor the traditional knowledge that generates these products and encourage the preservation of this knowledge through the exclusivity of awarding a G.I., it may be a worthwhile – if not entirely serious? – endeavor to examine the types of food preservation techniques: what analogies to food preservation do we find in the realm of cultural preservation, spearheaded at present by the heritage regime but looking back at a long history? And what effects do these techniques have comparatively, applied to cultural practices as opposed to food? Food preservation has as one major purpose of slowing down or stopping the natural process of putrefaction by removing the substance within which agents of decay multiply. There are some preservation techniques, such as cheese making, that transform a raw food with limited preservation potential through the addition of an agent that brings forth a new food which can, in turn, be preserved. The following list is neither exhaustive nor precise in the kind of structuralist matrix we are familiar with from The Raw and the Cooked; it is meant to stimulate thought and encourage reply:

Beginning with the more modern methods, let us look at freezing: Cold is applied to stop putrefaction – a method that has outdistanced drying and conserving with the advent of electric refrigeration. Foodstuffs will alter slightly in taste and texture but often maintain a good deal of their fresh consistency. Freezing happens – at least outside the supermarket context – within firmly closed contraptions and one can see here an analogy to cultural artifacts and traditional expressions which have vanished in museum storage or which remain in the custody of “culture bearers” who seek to not share them beyond their own group.

Then there are sterilizing, pasteurizing and homogenizing: These processes assist in prolonging the shelf life of foods, in particular liquids; bacteria are eliminated through the application of heat and further cooking in sealed containers contributes to the conservation process. A successful sterilization process of, for instance, fruit, also requires the removal of some of its parts (e.g. the skin, pit or seeds). The classic museum display represents a preservation analogy – with objects behind glass and cabinet after cabinet resembling rows of conserves in a pantry.

However, it is worthwhile looking at some older methods of preserving foods (themselves, of course, worthy of intangible heritage or G.I. status…):

Drying: this removes water from foods such as fruits, mushrooms as well as meat and fish, to halt the putrefying process. Preserving traditional performances – of oral histories and verbal art, dance, music and so forth – on paper, tape, photo, film, or digital media – removes the liquid entailed in the full sensory experience of participating and witnessing a live performance. Is it possible to add water to make these cultural expressions palpable again? Carrier media remove the observer from the experience, the question is what sort of “liquid” reintroduces a dynamic that performers and audiences – albeit with boundaries – constitute.

Smoking and curing: these are methods that also dehydrate, but that preserve food further by sealing the foodstuff with smoke or salt and thus also stopping or halting processes of putrefaction; simultaneously they endow such foods with a distinct flavor that is appreciated by many eaters and foster experimentation such as using particular types of wood for a special smoke production or flavoring the salt used for the curing process. Restoration of heritage sites invariably is “of the present” (even if it relies on historical research to restore using methods of a given past) and thus adds a flavor to the objects of monuments preserved. One might see this analogously to a cured or smoked ham which tastes quite different from fresh pork: flavor is created but it also marks the distance from the immediate present (in contrast to the more neutral freezing). Smoking gives a “past-in-the-present” flavor, perhaps comparable to a yellowed photograph. More metaphorically speaking, one might talk of “smoke and mirrors” that are constructed around cultural monuments which have mostly vanished yet are to be made graspable and palpable to visitors – through reconstructions, interpretative panels, 3-D animation and so forth.

Pickling: Raw foods, in particular vegetables but also fish and meats are set in acid substances such as vinegar (itself the product of a preservation process…) augmented with various herbs, salts and/or sweeteners, making it possible to extend their edibility and – again- render them different to suit often culture-specific tastes. This might – in terms of heritage regimes – suggest that rather than aiming for universal standards in restoration and preservation, pickling as a preservation measure might also generate a prickling diversity in what is to be visited by tourists from near and far.

Brewing, fermenting, distilling: These methods of preservation result both in a consumable product in liquid form as well as – in some situations – a disinfectant. The resulting products have the capacity to inebriate which opens interesting perspectives when considering potential analogies in heritage making. One could argue that “fermented” or “distilled” heritage represents creative adaptations and transformations of traditional cultural expressions, fostering thereby also a happy exuberance as long as one takes care to not imbibe too much.

These are naturally not all possible forms of food preservation – additional thought on some of the more smelly types of preserving or transforming foods will broaden further the range of options. Readers are encouraged to comment and spin these thoughts further! One important point to deliberate remains: Humans have devised a broad range of food preservation techniques, guarded by more or less secret knowledges, in order to transform raw foods in such matter as to keep it edible and hence consumable at a later date. The aim is thus always to eventually eat what has been preserved under the assumption that new raw food substance will grow. Heritage-making as a preservation activity is less straightforward. On the face of it, heritage is meant to be preserved in order to stay, and opportunity to “eat it” in order to make space for new cultural expressions, monuments, and landscapes to grow is limited by regimes ensuring the maintenance of all one has decided to celebrate, honor, marvel at from the past in the spirit of cultural preservation. If we did not eat up our preserved pickles, conserved peaches, cured and smoked meet, fish, and cheese, and frozen whatnots, they would, despite all our best efforts, eventually go bad and we would, furthermore, not have any space for the tasty, fresh foods growing anew every spring. It might be worthwhile examining the ever more bureaucratized heritage regime from this vantage point: how much space does it leave in the human pantry for putting up what is growing freshly, and perhaps differently?

2 thoughts on “Preservation Analogies: Food and Culture

  1. Thank you Regina for this highly inspiring input that for me, doing fieldwork in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin right now, sheds light on some of the “exotic” means of heritage preservation here. As one of the four ICOM pillars conservation of (ethnographic) objects is given top priority to ensure an eternal life for the objects and (visual) consumption by the public of artefacts representing culture(s) of sometimes vanished peoples.
    As keen as parasites are on raw food they are on objects so after years of contaminating objects with DDT, arsenic und mercury to make the parasites turn their backs objects are now frozen in giant freezers to prevent them from being chewed away. Not only are the cultures frozen in time in the museum but the objects are too. Whether that changes them in any way remains to be researched.
    Besides temperature air humidity is the key element in the storage to conserve objects. IPM (Integrated Pest managment) is the new eco-friendly way for conservation. Still the chemical cocktail of the old ways of conservation makes one handling the objects look like working in an infectious environment.
    Future plans for the Humboldt-Forum in the new/old castle of Berlin are going as far as to restructure old collection’s logics in the storages from parameters like geographical or ethnic origin to the parameter of material, making conservation the most important concern.
    With a collection of about 500 000 objects the issue of space was and is an everlasting concern in the museum here in Berlin. Lack of space in the storages compromises the conservation of objects and sets a limit to add new objects to the collection to make it more contemporay.
    So for things to grow freshly (contemporary objects, exhibition practices, ideas like shared cultural heritage and more participation of “source communities”) space is needed not only in the spatial realm but the realm of new ideas as well.
    At present it seems to me that the majority of ressources in the Museum are bound up by conservation efforts and managing the collections.
    The highly contested new space of the Humboldt-Forum in the centre of Berlin is adressing these very issues e.g. with initiatives like the Humboldt Lab Dahlem (

  2. Thank you Regina for sharing these interesting ideas. At the end of the post I was thinking about the food, or sauces, that are the result of organic decay. The Roman garum or the Vietnamese nuoc mam, but I am sure that anthropologists have more examples… It is paradoxical to think of putrefaction as a form of conservation but in a way this maceration technique makes decayed fish edible and makes tasty the food that these sauces are supposed to dress. Which kind of heritage treatment could that metaphorically represent? Maybe the burying of human remains or sacred objects returned to Native Americans? This way of dealing with heritage is considered a specific heritage regime, based on a particular understanding of conservation/safeguarding and regulated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. I hope that this add something to the brainstorming.

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