Food speaks: Integrating local culture and contributing to economic vitality through food

The key for entrepreneurial producers and food-related eateries who wish to cater to travelers is to cultivate and prepare foods that are locally grown, tied to the heritage of the area, and that come with a story to be told.

As more people seek authentic travel and experience, they want the food they eat to represent the place they are visiting. This aspect of culinary tourism is similar to souvenir shopping when a traveler seeks out a specialty shop to pick up items or gifts that are characteristic of a particular region or place. This travel phenomenon can be a tip to local eateries who seek to serve local fare.

“Place-based foods” have a unique taste tied to an ecological niche and/or ethnic or regional heritage of their producers. Food is not just about sustenance; people want foods that have a story.

In 1992 the European Union (EU) established specific definitions or appellations of origin for “geographical indications” (GIs), which focus on place of origin and qualities that derive from that place, e.g. climate and soil. The EU did this to protect products from misuse or imitation and to give consumers reliable product information. 

Categorizing foods in the U.S. using European terms is difficult and confusing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that a different relationship with food has developed here than it has in Europe. Some foods are easy to declare place-based because they originated here or have been grown here for decades (e.g., Traverse Bay-area cherries). Others are tied to specific ethnic or occupational groups processing/production methods, and eating traditions (e.g. New England lobsters, Michigan sugar beets, southern sweet potato pie).

Authenticity is the underlying issue with place-based foods. A food that is authentic is one that is “real.” However, authenticity means different things to different people and different groups. Is a food really from a particular region? Does it taste a certain way because of the environment in which it was grown (i.e., the soils, molds, altitude, humidity, air or water of that region)? Has a particular group prepared it in a certain way and passed along the recipe down through the ages? Was the food created by actual people and not in a factory by assembly line machines? Is it free from antibiotics, hormones or genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Is it organic?  Various combinations of these criteria combine to determine just how “place-based” a particular food is according to the group experiencing the food.

Even something as simple as food can get quickly complicated. Google “authentic cuisine” and one finds no end to the number of claims to authentic ethnic or regional food.

They key for entrepreneurial producers and food-related eateries who wish to cater to travelers and locals who seek local flavor is to cultivate and prepare foods that are locally grown, tied to the heritage of the area and that come with a story to be told. We can learn from the French who pride themselves in their regional flavors. Food then becomes a more integrated piece of the local culture and contributes to the economic vitality of the region. 

For more information about place-based and culinary tourism as a green economic development strategy, check out the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Related Articles