A recent Zester Daily article asked the provoking question, “Is Culinary Heritage a Good Idea?” The author argues that designating certain cuisines a “Cultural Heritage” may not be as indisputably good as it sounds, arguing that “It can, at its best, encourage local pride and cooperation as well as drawing tourists to an unforgettable experience. All too easily, though, it can become an end in itself, blocking the change that keeps societies alive and making second class citizens of minorities, migrants and others who do not share the heritage.”  She refutes “pervasive culinary nostalgia, the disquieting feeling that somewhere, sometime food was better, tastier, more natural and more healthful, that there was a Mediterranean diet or a Mexican cuisine untarnished by migrants, industrialism and change.”

As the Chefs Collaborative RAFT Grow-Out project coordinator, this article got me thinking.  One of the goals of the RAFT Grow-Out project is to encourage the renewal of heritage and heirloom foods.  We work with farmers to encourage them to grow “traditional” New England varieties, and we encourage chefs to buy and cook with these foods.  Are we blocking change and giving into culinary nostalgia?

I realized that many of the varieties we’ve chosen for the Grow-Out, which have such seemingly solid roots here in New England, have actually been transplanted here from other places.  The Jimmy Nardello sweet pepper was bred and brought to America from an Italian immigrant (and for that matter, peppers originated in the tropics of the Americas before ending up in Jimmy’s garden over in Italy). The Forellenschuss lettuce is originally a German variety.  We here in New England owe a great deal of our culinary heritage and tradition to global immigration patterns– as do most regions of the world.  ‘Traditional’ foods change and are constantly influenced by history and politics.

At the same time, plant foods grow in the ground, and some plants just do better in certain places.  We can’t grow coffee or chocolate here in New England; we can grow some excellent winter squash and turnips.  Regions have culinary heritages in part based on the ingredients that grow well in those places.  One reason the Grow-Out heirloom varieties have such a long history in New England is that generations of gardeners and farmers have deemed them good enough to plant again.  Farmers today are growing Gilfeather Turnips and finding that there is a reason they have become part of New Engand’s culinary traditions: they grow well here.

During the Grow-Out, I had a chance to taste a lot of the ‘traditional’ New England vegetable varieties interpreted by different chefs.  The creative and delicious dishes that the chefs came up with were inspired by these ingredients, but were absolutely not limited to what we might think of as “traditional New England” foods. From Morroccan-braised lamb with Long Pie Pumpkin to Boston Marrow Squash flatbread to Jimmy Nardello Kimchi, the chefs participating in the Grow-Out found all kinds of innovative ways to defy ‘tradition’ while honoring the traditional varieties.  The chefs appreciated the quality of the ingredients that are well adapted to this particular place, but by no means felt bound to prepare those ingredients in nostalgic ways.

So, is culinary heritage a good idea?  Honoring place-based ingredients seems like a good idea to me, as does recognizing that food comes from the ground and is affected by weather patterns and soil type.  But, it also seems like a good idea to go ahead and appreciate the diverse flavor palate that global migration has introduced.  We can eat locally, think globally.  And, from my experience with the Grow-Out, these don’t have to be mutually exclusive—in fact, they make a delicious combination.

Chefs, what do you think? What do the ideas of ‘culinary traditions’ and ‘culinary heritage’ mean to you?