2017: Food and Landscape

As Pliny observed long ago, ‘the same vine has a different value in different places’ – Harold McGee

Through foods, we imagine we are consuming places: such is the poetry of terroir. From the myth of Demeter, there has always been a romanticism about the land whose harvest feeds us. We eat the lemons of Sorrento and the oranges of Sicily, Aegean pistachios and the clotted cream of Cornwall. The landscapes of food also express different cultures. In Catalonia there are three cuisines – of the sea, of the mountains and of the wide valley of the river Ebro. Cuisine has its own topographies. ‘Cooking is the landscape in a saucepan’, as the Catalan writer Josep Pla said. You can map the world through ham (Parma, Westphalia, Virginia); through honey (thyme honey from Mount Hymettus, Tupelo honey from Florida) or through gefilte fish. In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden writes that “variants in gefilte fish, with or without sugar, followed the same boundaries as did the Polish and Lithuanian Yiddish dialects and that there was a geographical belt of sweet gefilte fish wherever Hassidic communities settled”.
Yet the foods we choose to eat do not merely reflect landscape but shape it. From the farming revolution 10 000 years ago, humans have transformed, destroyed and created countless landscapes through agriculture. We have ploughed and tilled; cut channels into the soil for irrigation; we have smothered the land in pesticides and fertilizers; we have bred new strains of fruit and genetically modified grain. Meanwhile, our appetite for meat – especially for beef – has a bigger carbon footprint than our habit of driving cars.
We invite papers for 2017 that consider the subject of food and landscape from many perspectives. How do certain foods take root in certain places? Some papers may consider food and nationalism (how did Italy become the land of tomatoes?) or food and politics. How have the food taboos of different religions generated different landscapes? You might wish to explore urban farming and ideal gardens or climate change and how food affects the environment. Other angles include the semi-mythical landscapes of cookbooks: Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean, Jane Grigson’s England. Or you may wish to trace how our norms about a proper plate of food – from meat and two veg to unblemished fruit – leave deep traces on the land we all inhabit.
The general editorial practice of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery has been to discourage papers on drink as such (since there are so many conferences already devoted to discussions of wine, for example), although we have included papers on drink as food or as related to meals. Any mention of ‘Food and Landscape’ immediately conjures thoughts of terroir, a term increasingly used to describe the local character of various foods. Though the OED points out that the term originally meant ‘land’ or ‘soil’, its use in foodways comes from the meaning specific to winemaking: ‘the growing traditions of a particular region, viewed as contributing distinctive flavours’. Despite this connection, the Symposium will continue to focus on food this year, but will not rule out excellent papers that relate to the terroir of drinkables as well as edibles.
Anyone interested in presenting a paper at the 2017 Symposium should submit a proposal of 500-1000 words by 20 January 2017 to Mark McWilliams at editor@oxfordsymposium.org.uk. For more information, please see Giving a Paper.


‘Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn!’ George Bernard Shaw.

Seeds are a food that also contain or promise multitudes of other foods. In a tiny radish seed is all the potential of a full grown red radish, from bulbous root to lush green leaves.
Without seeds there would be no staple bread or rice, no pint of beer or cup of espresso, no coconut and no chocolate. We cook and eat in a world of seeds, from the fashionable seed mixes sprinkled on a bowl of yoghurt to the refined seed oils that make up an increasing percentage of global calorie intake.
Two key facts about seeds, as Thor Hanson wrote in his 2015 book Seeds, are that they travel and endure so well. The durability and portability of seeds have been a key factor explaining the particular crops we grow and eat and the way that we grow them. Seeds transported across the world – whether by natural forces such as winds or by human farmers – have enabled people to eat a far more diverse diet than would otherwise have been possible. In 1723 cuttings and seeds from a single coffee tree taken by a French naval officer in Martinique laid the foundation for coffee plantations across the Caribbean. You could fit enough seed for an acre of wheat in a single large shopping bag (based on 30lb of seed per acre). What’s more, unlike most other foods, that seed could last almost indefinitely before it is used. As Hanson writes ‘without dormancy, farmers and gardeners couldn’t save seed for future plantings; nor would grains or legumes or nuts last so long stored in our cupboards and pantries. We take it for granted, but if seeds couldn’t lie around for months or years on end, our entire food production system would be a folly’.
In modern times, seeds have become a battleground. Heirloom seed savers fight to keep seeds part of the commons; biologists and conservationists fill seed banks with the world’s plant diversity to safeguard against catastrophe; transnational food companies develop and patent monoculture-ready seed varieties, bred for pest resistance, high yields, and the reliance on the infrastructure of industrial agriculture. The outcome of these battles are not only political but gastronomic: in his book The Third Plate Dan Barber quotes a farmer who says we have ‘lost the taste for wheat’ because consumers no longer even expect wheat flour to have a particular flavour.
For our 2018 Symposium, we invite imaginative papers that think about seeds in the widest and broadest sense. Perhaps you might consider the many cuisines of seeds, from the sesame sweets of the Middle East to the myriad dals of India. Pulses (or legumes), nuts and grains are all seeds, while seed oils (notably from soya beans) have become one of the most consumed sources of calories in the world. Seeds also have a rich symbolism, from the pomegranate seeds of Persephone in Greek myth to the parable of the sower in Matthew 13 in The Bible. Seeds have been used to celebrate birth, marriage, death and resurrection from the wheat grains of Greek funeral foods to the buried almond in Swedish Christmas porridge.
Other papers might look at the complex relationship between seeds and the lives of the plants that bear them, why some like the walnut are large and locked into a hard shell, others like amaranth and quinoa tiny and broadcast all but naked, still others like pepper and nutmeg so flavourful that we can’t eat them straight.
You might wish to research ancient plant varieties or modern hybrids, seeded grapes or seedless watermelons, seed sharing or seed monopolies. Seed ownership has become a question of social justice, with reports of farmers in Tanzania facing jail if they seed-save after a harvest as was always the tradition in the past. How do seeds change when they become an object of intellectual property rights?
Some papers may consider wild seeds while others may look at how the act of planting and husbanding a seed is at the heart of agriculture. Another avenue would be the ways in which seeds have either broadened or narrowed the diversity of our diets. We would also welcome papers on the particularity of certain food seeds, from the bitter almond flavour of an apricot pit to the rice of China. Whatever else seeds may be, they are always a kind of miracle and we look forward to exploring this rich subject with you in 2018.

The 2019 topic will be ‘Food and Power’.