Topic 2021: Food and Imagination

Papers for the 2021 Oxford Food Symposium are invited on the subject of Food & Imagination.

While it can be argued that all foodstuffs altered by human activity are works of the imagination, what concerns us this year is the conscious, creative process that transforms what we eat beyond the minimum required for sustenance. The instinct to transform appears universal: as the product of the mind, it marks the beginning of culture.  If cooking is what makes us human, imagination lit the flame.

When our ancestors added a fragrant leaf or seed to roasting foods, perhaps they wanted the scented smoke to waft to the heavens to please their gods? Throughout human history people have passed recipes and culinary know-how from one generation to another. Women learnt how to cook from their mothers and grandmothers, continuing traditions rather than striving to innovate. In professional kitchens, until relatively recently, chefs worked within traditional guidelines making dishes that conformed to diners’ expectations.

Marked changes came most often from factors outside the kitchen: as a result of trade, and of war and conquest, and movements of populations. Though in some court kitchens, in certain periods of history, cooks were encouraged to invent, and new culinary ideas took shape, it is only in the 20thcentury, at the same time as the rise of the restaurant trade, the industrialization of agriculture and food production, and globalization, that a global food culture developed that valued innovation and creativity, the raw material of imagination.

Transcending quotidian experience is one aspect of the culinary imagination. Yet, the culinary imagination also plays into earthly issues of class, power, and identity. Sophisticated chefs and home cooks alike throughout the millennia have used their imaginations. Examples include the clever deceptions found in the Apicius recipe collection for an elite Roman dinner party, the ornately lavish public banquets hosted by rulers in many eras to reassure restless populations that the ruler’s larder, and by association their own, were secure and well-stocked, or by Depression-era substitutes for struggling households, such as the cracker-based mock apple pie.

How do we repurpose leftovers into enticing meals? How have cooks and food producers turned culinary ‘disasters’ into classics—the daring genius who imagined in mouldy cheese the potential for sublime Roquefort? Imagination implies challenges to tradition.  Questions to be asked include how do cuisines change and adapt to the introduction of new ingredients, tools, techniques, environmental challenges, and (nowadays) the widespread availability of ingredients year-round that is recalibrating what seasonality now means? Is late 20th century ‘fusion’ cookery a ‘cuisine’?

When does borrowing and mixing veer into its thorny cousin, culinary appropriation? Imagination has also led to the new culinary vocabulary of modernist cuisine, marrying chemistry, technology, and flights of fancy to create unprecedented gastronomic experiences. How do we imagine the food of the future? Imagination is undeniably required as we look for new ways to feed the world and beyond, as we flirt with journeying to Mars.

The foregoing focuses on the practitioner’s imagination (historical, contemporary, and futuristic) in entering the kitchen to create a meal; we also welcome other broad areas of potential exploration, such as

  • symbolism and meaning-making
  • story-telling and ritual, whether secular or religious
  • literature and mythology, whether possible or fanciful
  • eating to include The Group or exclude The Other through taboos
  • hierarchies of foods
  • the fine and plastic arts
  • cookbooks, recipes, and meal structures, including the impossible-to-eat (think Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook)

Food and Imagination allows us to consider our understanding of food in all of its sacred and profane connotations, limited only by our own imaginations.

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The topic for 2022 is Food away from the Table, 2023 will be Food and Rules & Rituals.