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When is a Loaf of Bread More Than Just a Loaf of Bread?

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What do you think of when you hear about UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)? If you are like me, you likely think of the many landmarks around the word that have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites: places like the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, and the Great Wall of China. However, UNESCO is not just interested in preserving tangible cultural landmarks all over the world. UNESCO is also concerned with preserving intangible cultural heritage from around the world as well. Which is how the French baguette came to find itself on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2022.

Let us take a closer look at UNESCO and what makes something a part of cultural history, as well as what makes the baguette unique. Fair warning: you may end up craving a delicious, crusty, and chewy piece of bread by the time you finish this post!

The History of UNESCO

UNESCO’s constitution was adopted in 1945, and the organization became active in 1946. Like many United Nations associations, UNESCO was created with the goal of keeping peace. After two world wars in a short amount of time, UNESCO was created to “bring people together and strengthen the intellectual and moral solidarity of humankind, through mutual understanding and dialogue between cultures.” It has sought to achieve its goals through many programs and instruments, such as the following:

As we can see from this list, there is more to UNESCO than recognizing and preserving historic landmarks. UNESCO has been pivotal in the establishment of scientific research facilities like CERN, as well as developing a worldwide tsunami early warning system, and bringing together scholars and experts to write a comprehensive history of Africa which seeks to reframe African history beyond that of colonization and slave trade and to promote African perspectives. Everything UNESCO does is carried out under a framework of bringing humanity closer together through understanding and education.

What Constitutes Cultural Heritage?

This leads us then to why UNESCO focuses on cultural heritage. In order to bring people with different beliefs and backgrounds together, it helps to explain why we do things the way we do in our various countries. If we can understand one another’s cultural backgrounds, we can appreciate and respect our differences. But what exactly constitutes cultural heritage?

UNESCO defines it as “the cultural legacy which we receive from the past, which we live in the present and which we will pass on to future generations.” It includes “artefacts, monuments, a group of buildings and sites, [and] museums that have a diversity of values including symbolic, historic, artistic, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological, scientific and social significance.” In recent years, UNESCO has expanded its definition of cultural heritage to include intangibles like “oral traditionsperforming artssocial practices, rituals, festive eventsknowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” In order for something to be added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, there is a multi-year process that nominating state parties must engage in. Enter the humble (and delicious) baguette.

If I ask you to close your eyes and imagine France, what are some of the images that come to your mind? Do you see the Eiffel Tower? Maybe you picture the French Alps or the coast of Normandy? Is it possible you see something like this:

Two baskets filled with various kinds of baguettes
Baguettes. Photo by flickr user petter palander. June 11, 2010. Used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

To me, and many others, the baguette is as quintessential a part of French culture as a glass of champagne, a beret or Breton-striped shirt, or a sumptuous piece of smelly cheese (is it lunchtime yet?). What makes the baguette so indelibly French? Let us take a look at its history.

History of the Baguette

There are several apocryphal stories regarding the origin of the baguette. Some say Napoleon requested that bread be baked in long, thin loaves so it would be easier for his soldiers to carry with them. Others claim that baguettes were invented to keep Parisian metro workers from fighting one another with knives – the baguette’s ability to be torn easily meant workers did not need to have knives on them. Another theory states that baguettes came to be due to a 1920 law limiting the hours bakers could work – the baguette was able to be prepared more quickly than other kinds of bread. Some believe France owes Austria for its iconic bread (including croissants). Whatever the truth of its origin may be, there is no doubt about the baguette’s popularity in France; despite a decline in baguette consumption over the past few decades, approximately 16 million loaves are made per day in France. That translates to about 6 billion loaves a year!

The baguette is so important to French society that it is protected by law. In 1993, France passed Le Décret Pain (the Bread Decree). This law dictates that homemade bread must be made at the place of sale and further clarifies what ingredients are permitted in traditional French bread, specifically banning the use of pre-made dough for baguettes sold under the names of Baguette tradition, Baguette à l’ancienne, or Baguette de campagne.

The French take their baguettes seriously. Each year, there is an annual competition in Paris to award the best baguette in town and the winner gets to supply the president’s mansion with baguettes for a year. France has its own scientific Bread Observatory. Even President Macron has been vocal about the importance of the baguette in French culture.

Thus, it is not difficult to understand why the baguette has officially received UNESCO recognition for its importance to French culture. As I leave you to daydream about delicious, warm bread, I cannot help but ask – what item or tradition from your own culture would you put on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity?

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  1. Fascinating information on UNESCO and the Baguette! Yes it did make me hungry – and prompted a lesson idea for Culinary Arts Classes. Thank you!

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