FOOD AND LANDSCAPE: Our Theme for the 2017 Symposium


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.
The 2018 topic will be ‘Seeds’. The 2019 topic will be ‘Food and Power’.