The Oxford Symposium is the original conference for people with a broad interest in food. Held at St Catz in Oxford.
‘Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn!’ George Bernard Shaw.
Seeds are food in themselves, and they contain or promise multitudes of other foods. Without seeds there would be no 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.
As Thor Hanson wrote in his 2015 book Seeds, seeds travel well, and they are durable. Seeds transported across the world – whether by natural forces such as winds or by travelling humans – have enabled people to eat a far more diverse diet than would otherwise have been possible. And unlike most other foods, seed can 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 seed varieties, bred for pest resistance, high yields, and a reliance on the infrastructure of industrial agriculture. The outcomes of these battles are not only political and economic, but also gastronomic.
For our 2018 Symposium, we invite imaginative papers that think about seeds in the broadest sense.
You might consider the many cuisines of seeds, from the sesame sweets of the eastern Mediterranean to the myriad dals of India. Pulses (legumes), nuts, and grains are all seeds, while seed oils (from soya beans, sesame seeds, mustard seed, grape seeds, and more) 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 the New Testament. And in many cultures seeds are used to celebrate birth, marriage, death, the coming of the new year, and more.
Other papers might look at the complex relationship between seeds and the lives of the plants that bear them. 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 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?
Another possible avenue is to look at 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 variations in the taste of different rice varieties.
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’.
The 2020 topic will be ‘Herbs, Spices and Health’.