OFS Kitchen Table Report (No. 4)

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Souk el Tayeb. Photo credit: Souk el Tayeb

Can Food Really Bring People Together?

Kamal Mouzawak, Christine Codsi and Jaimee Lee Haddad of Souk El Tayeb joined Symposium trustee David Matchett for the 4th OFS Kitchen Table to tell us about life in Lebanon and their journey to build and maintain a community through food.

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L to R: Kamal Mouzawak and Christine Codsi. Jaimee Lee Haddad. Photo credit: Souk el Tayeb


Kamal Mouzawak
is the founder of Souk el Tayeb, Lebanon’s first-established farmers market. As the son of farmers, Kamal grew up knowing at first-hand how food is produced and prepared. After majoring in graphic design, he embarked on a successful career as a food and travel writer. Work as a TV chef specialising in healthy cooking convinced him of the need for social and environmental change. This became the inspiration behind the establishment of Souk el Tayeb, in 2004, as a place where food and tradition could bring communities together by providing a market-place for small-scale farmers and producers, many of whom were already practicing sustainable agriculture as a way of life. Today’s Souk el Tayeb is an institution that includes a weekly farmers market, “food & feast” regional festivals, “souk@school” education and awareness programs, el tayeb newsletter, “dekenet Souk el tayeb”, and “Tawlet Souk el Tayeb” or the farmers’ kitchen-table, a place where people can gather together to share home-cooked food, “This,” explains Kamal, “is about supporting individuals in very fragile situations who recognise they can generate an income through sharing their own culinary identity and food roots with others. Seeing people believing in themselves, respecting themselves and furthering themselves brings me a lot of joy.”

Christine Codsi joined Souk el Tayeb as a managing partner in 2009 after working for nine years as a business consultant in a Lebanese consultancy firm developing vision and strategy in business planning. She met Kamal while taking a sabbatical in 2008, at a time when the original marketplace was facing the kind of challenges with which Christine was already familiar. Willing and able to do something she considered meaningful for her country, she offered to provide consultancy services in developing what she believes Lebanon needs: pro-bono local development, sustainable businesses, direct and visible impact. After three months auditing Souk el Tayeb, she presented her recommendations in the form of a hundred page power-point document convincing enough for Kamal asked her to join as a full-time partner to help in implementing the recommendations.

Jaimee Lee Haddad made the move to Lebanon from the US in January 2020. After spending the first six months living in the northern part of the country with her family – gardening, reading, drawing and hiking – she started working at Souk El Tayeb as communication coordinator in September 2020. Appropriately for a communicator, she spotted the job-offer on Instagram and applied without hesitation immediately.

The edited Q&A from the chatline demonstrates the commitment of all three of our invited guests at the Kitchen Table on January 21st to an extraordinary resurgence of the spirit of Lebanon in the heart of her capital, Beirut.

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Sketch by Jennifer Bonner. Photo credit: Jennifer Bonner

From Kamal
When we started it in 2004, the farmer’s market was like a magnet…it was important that this was a producers’ market rather than a sellers’ market.

Notes from the chatline
Lebanon should be a case study for the 21st century – [answering] the question of how we should all live together…[What’s needed is] longer tables rather than higher walls….[let’s] be different but with something in common… Why don’t we look beyond what divides us and celebrate what we have in common…we have to celebrate this diversity.

From Kamal
There are not two leaves alike on a tree. Maybe no one is right and no-one is wrong…maybe others are right too, it’s just different points of view. If you come at them with open arms they have wider arms.

From the chatline
[When Kamal says] It’s not about the food, [this] is so profound to me right now. I am missing all the people I eat and cook with desperately, and yet, while food is what we gather around it’s not what really matters…The kitchen table is so important….Like coming home….the cook tells you her story of herself through her food….I can relate because I’m from India, where eating together is such a big thing….Cooking with food and love at the kitchen table – yes, that is what we all need – it’s the basis of everything, and always anti-folkloric.

From Kamal
Tawlet [the name of the restaurant associated with the farmers market] is a new concept of sharing food while highlighting home-made. It opens as a regular restaurant and is well advertised and attracts locals and travellers. All that we did was about productive economy and not charity. When there is charity people lose their dignity.

From the chatline
If it’s charity, all too often [there’s] resentment….I want to be eating in Tawlet right now…
This is a social enterprise, so by definition a way to highlight and harvest talents….There is just so much to admire and to learn from Souk el Tayeb – how to rebuild society without ‘us and them’. Wonderful….How to do things better? is the initial question…This is really a social gastronomy project that has been so successful and make a difference in a country in need of emergency support….This love of sharing and feeding people as at the heart/hearth of community is in essence the same message that came from the extraordinarily uplifting 7 day Oxford Real Farming Conference with 5000 people, many small farmers, around the world – nurture soil/land/our fellow plants and rest of biodiverse first and food and community will follow….if only politicians could make it appealing for young people to become farmers/local food producers, the good life could indeed be a prize for all of us.

From Christine
Think first how we can help socially.

From the chatline
We need to realise the power of food to shape society ….our ancestors knew this very well…Your bed and breakfast concept is such a natural way to operate locally with global impact. Increasingly travellers are seeking out what you have conceived as “embassies of pride”….Using food as a tool for social impact…‘food is a tool’ – yes indeed: for better or worse…There are projects all around the world using food. Just look at the CLINK in London or Gastromotiva in Rio. There are so many projects developed. And the Pandemic has increased this effort….Etymology of restaurant is ‘to restore’….as Gandhi said “Be the change you want to see”…

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Photo credit: Souk el Tayeb

From Kamal
What change do you want? It’s for you to decide. All issues – they are all human problems. Human betterment and human development is the only [possible] approach.

From the chatline
Yes—human problems [are] seeing ourselves as not a part of the natural world.
…What strikes me about Lebanon as opposed to a country like the UK is the fact that the traditional food culture is still relatively intact. It seems to me that we need to ask the question again what is a good life – valuing food and sharing it is just one of the most obvious ways of moving towards a more sustainable, equitable world….

Yes: food shapes the world, so good food shapes the world better…That is the great challenge here in the UK..how to recover a food culture which is an understanding of food and where it comes from – not doing master chef at home. We are very far from this in the UK. Such a simple question. What is a good life.

From Kamal
There is no perfect solution…but there is a good solution for a particular issue.

From the chatline
Traditional food culture is so important, and so hard to rebuild once it’s lost….relationships, trust, generosity…respect for all life….I think we’ve forgotten how to ask the question. We need to give ourselves permission again.

From Jaimee
[What’s needed is] learning, sharing, making connections with a goal in mind. There’s no shortage of stories in the Souk.

From the chatline
Eating together, sharing together is the Lebanese way….Unfortunately, bringing in Western food chains like McDonald’s is what seems to be seen like ‘development’. Kids don’t want homemade food, they know burger-names by heart….The big constant question in my own area of London – how do we gather together – shops, farmers market, local markets, food growers and all to promote, truly grow a food culture, given its long absence….yes – ‘solving the food problem’ has always been seen as progress – but we forget what is lost in the transition…

From Kamal
Our slogan is ‘make food not war’.

From the chatline
So many indigenous recipes and indigenous foods are lost in transition….
Perhaps we should think about setting up a lunch table at our local farmer’s market every week? Post-covid distancing…..How do we prise people out of their houses again who have got used to ordering Thai curry at 2am from Deliveroo?…I think we’re all ready to get out and be social.

From Kamal
Tradition is not a museum, you know… if something is alive, it changes. Belonging through food is a kind of belonging that can be shared.

From the chatline
I got involved in a local farmers market for a number of years..a sort of political act…True – in fact there has probably never been a better time to rethink the power of food to bring us together….

One of the most inspiring things about the Oxford Real Farming Conf was the thousands of young farmers around the world who LOVED being on the land, who can teach others this way forward and that it is a wonderful way to live…we were talking about how young people didn’t always want to eat traditional foods…Kamal reminded us don’t fight this, but build parallel roads and get the parents to encourage these foods -the young will come full circle….This is about change being necessary for life.

From Jaimee
Change is not a rejection but a modification. At school in the US, I ate dolmas inside a bread roll so that my classmates wouldn’t know I was eating what [to them] looked like a turd’! The trick is finding hope for what one can do. The question to ask is what can I do with what I have? There are plenty of people not wanting to leave Lebanon and trying to find solutions.

From the chatline
McDonalds (and others) offer free wifi which has become more significant, particularly to lower income youth with no free wifi at home….Not just to youth, but to adults, when libraries are closed…They are heated too – and when it’s cold at home and you can’t afford to heat your home…But asking that question – what do I want for my life? – is also a privilege to have the time and mental space to ask…

From Kamal
How do I make my own right choices? It’s always up to the individual to make the best choices.
It is humility that is at the root of good choices. Human betterment and development are the essence!

From the chatline
We have to embrace what it takes to sustain us – that is how we become human…Thanks Kamal for embodying the ideal that we should embody our ideals…We need to look at need – that is the obvious thing. There is one truth and that is fairness, which is what folkloric is…If you go to a farmers market, the farmer will bring what’s in season….If you go to a supermarket you buy the same thing all year long – if you go to a market you buy what is seasonal. It’s all about what’s obvious….Embracing the necessary – yes!

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Market. Painting by Elisabeth Luard

OFS Kitchen Table Report (No. 3)

Shared Visions: Expressions of Hope Through Food on the Table
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Painting by Elisabeth Luard

Symposium Chair Elisabeth Luard, Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, Priscilla Mary Işın, Priya Mani and Linda Roodenburg joined Symposium trustee Gamze İneceli to send 2020 off with a festive chat on celebrations, feasts and finding hope in times of darkness.

What follows is a rough digest of the subject-matter and chatline as discussed at Shared Vision: Expression of Hope Through Food on the Table, our third gathering round the Kitchen Table.

In Provence & Britain (Elisabeth Luard)

Elisabeth started the conversation by reminding us of how much we – fellow-inhabitants of our beautiful planet – share of the rituals and customs with which we mark important moments in our lives. Whatever the reason – religious festival, anniversary, changing year – the symbolism of what we set on the table allows us to communicate without words. At time of darkness, real or in the mind, instinct tells us to light a candle, taste sweetness, give thanks through generosity to others. Many of the threads that remind us of who we are are woven together in Provence where the river Rhone, arterial highway to the heart of Europe, meets the Mediterranean, watery pathway into the heart of Asia. On the edge of the river’s delta, in the little town of Arles with its prehistoric burial grounds and Roman amphitheatre, poet Frederic Mistral’s ethnological museum, Museon Arlaten, tells the story of these ancient shared beliefs. She continued with thoughts of Christmas pudding and mince pies: the pudding, in its original form, is a suet dumpling sweetened with dried fruit and nuts to make it special, cooked in a cloth suspended in or over what’s cooking in the boiling-pot. Mince(meat) pies included chopped meat along with dried fruit, nuts, spices and kidney-fat – suet – until the division between sweet and savoury became more marked in recent times: after the meat was lost, the suet remained.

In Iceland (Nanna Rögnvaldardottir)

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Photo credit: Nanna Rögnvaldardottir

Nanna remembered what Christmas meant for her as a child: candles lit in all the windows; a tree made out of a broom with green paper leaves; the scent and taste of apples which were imported and came as a gift from her grandmother. Imported fruits were never available any other time. The scent of apples is the scent of Christmas in Iceland, and light! Light and red apples! “Talking about apples, we get them year round now, but when I was a child, I only ever saw them at Christmas and for years, never understood the attraction: it was always mealy and dry.”

Both adults and children looked forward to preparing leaf-bread [crisply-fried paper-thin rounds of dough, intricately-patterned with a knife] the making of which involved the entire household or even the whole community (still does).

Then, there was the Christmas cat who was supposed to go after anyone that didn’t have a new piece of clothing for Christmas, so everyone usually got something, even if it was just a pair of stockings.

In the old days, the traditional eve-of-feast mischief-making was created by the Yule Lads – thieving rascals trying to steal food – now converted into thirteen lovable Santas who give children treats.

In Turkey (Priscilla Mary Işın)

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Turkish Rooster Lollies. Photo credit: Priscilla Mary Işın

Mary spoke of the Turkish tradition of offering something sweet to welcome guests. Sweetness is also provided at funerals and on remembrance. On the 40th day of mourning, and at the date of death in the following years, the family organises the provision of “lokma” – little doughnuts dipped in syrup – to everyone in the town or village, but most especially to people who didn’t know the deceased, in return of which, a prayer is said for the departed soul.

Sweet things considered appropriate to celebration, particularly in villages and small towns, are lollipops in the shape of a rooster – herald of the dawn, bringer of light in darkness and hope in hardship – an image present in many mythologies and cultures. Gamze added:

in my childhood, a favorite lollipop was the red rooster. The fox and rabbit making peace with each other is a very old Ottoman mould, now unfortunately vanished, but while I was chatting with the gentle master who makes them, all these old traditions and stories came bubbling up. These symbols definitely need reviving. While the ones he made for us weren’t particularly flavoured, in the old days, cinnamon was the rooster-flavour, other flavours were rose, violet, lemon, bergamot and so on – now we have these only as hard candy.

In India (Priya Mani)

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Vishu Kani. Photo credit: Priya Mani

Priya spoke of sweet-throwing rituals in Indian festivities similiar to those in Turkey – a physical demonstration of generosity to others as an essential ingredient of celebration.

By placing traditional food on the table you express the hope that your children will continue to cook from nostalgia: a way of remembering.

Among festive “Vishu Kani” memories from her childhood, an arrangement of ripe fruit and yellow flowers, symbols of plenty, are set in front of a mirror to double the good fortune. Arranged by the senior matron of the family, the display is kept hidden from view till the morning, when the youngest child is woken before dawn and led to the display, eyes shut, it’s still a little dark:

When you open your eyes, the very first image you see is your own reflection in the mirror surrounded by the glitter of gold jewellery and yellow fruits, telling you that the greatness of God lies within yourself.

In Rotterdam (Linda Roodenburg)

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Photo Credits Carel van Hees / Linda Roodenburg ‘s Rotterdams Kookboek

Linda gathered together all the threads through a series of images of multinational midwinter celebrations in Rotterdam, demonstrating the power of food to evoke memory and belonging. During the time she spent with migrant families in Rotterdam did she notice any similarities in food habits and ways of celebrating? “No! They were all quite different.” Such a lovely patchwork of cultures enjoying food – sharing food together is so important. Wonderful to see all of the cultures represented and people celebrating and dancing.

The universal similarities are variety, plenty, and the joy of sharing with loved ones. The similarity is the communality. Sharing food is a universal language.

From the Chatline

The Importance of Light

Light in darkness [indicates] hope for future…

We lose this dark/light distinction in cities where there is always light…

We have forgotten the magic of darkness in the West, which is why losing power is, among other things, magical…

Power-outages are one of the only times we see the contrast of how dark the world can be…

I remember a series of power cuts in the 1970s as a child – they were magical! We have forgotten about magic, period!…

In these weird times to believe in magic, it’s not only important but soothing.

Nana’s stories remind me of Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space – the lovely feeling of being inside and cosy when outside it is cold and dark.

On Belonging

You do not make leaf bread by yourself – it is communal – Sense of belonging somewhere…

Making leaf bread in care homes is a great idea…

Brings to mind the making of tamales in the Southwest…

I feel I belong when working with others… Sharing memories of childhood and family equals belonging…

That’s what we are all missing isn’t it? Getting together to do things?

On Santa

Santa really distresses me. Coercing children into lying to each other in order to not reveal an adult conspiracy!

“Mass deception of children” – such a great phrase…

I still put an orange in our children’s stocking and tell them the story that my grandfather told me of having one orange all year, on Christmas Day.

The Importance of Sweetness

There are so many foods that are tied in with traditions of good life, good marriage and good luck…

Hard sugar broken over the bride’s head for a sweet, good marriage is such a lovely idea…

In Eyup, an old neighborhood in Istanbul, there were shops making sugar toys and animals…

Maybe Gamze’s red rooster lollies are no longer a special treat because children eat so much sweet stuff all year… Historically, sugar was a symbol of wealth…

The human craving for sugar is intense – hunter-gatherers will risk their lives to collect honey from high up in a tree…

Red is lucky in many cultures: pink-colored helva is served at wedding ceremonies in the Aegean.

Some Jewish traditions include having a candy to suck when you leave a graveyard, to remind you of the sweetness of the world. Also it is usual to throw candies at a bar mitzvah boy or girl after they have read their torah portion to the community in the synagogue. Sweets feature in quite a few Jewish festivals – there is a lot of sweet-throwing – hamentaschen, sufganiyot – at simchat torah.

Fast Before Feast

Could it be that we need abstinence before feast, as in the past happens before Ramadan?

In Provence on the Eve of Christmas, a fasting supper (souper maigre) precedes the Reveillon, a feast of good things traditionally served after attending Mass at midnight…

We still have fasting in Italy on Christmas Eve, when we only eat fish, vegetables, and pasta, but no meat…

I suppose the agricultural year [with its nature-imposed periods of fasting] makes the need for spring and renewed fertility much starker than in hunter-gatherer cultures.


The Value of Sharing

In Turkey, we all take turns to continuously stir the semolina when making “halva”, so that everyone has a hand in the preparation…

There’s a tradition of stirring the Christmas pudding in Britain…

We used to have big picnic parties when I was young, & the kids all took turns hand cranking the machine to make ice-cream…

It tastes better if you make it together…

In some Indian cultures, people come together to make things…[there’s] symbolic significance in the ritual of sharing stories and singing songs together…

When neighbors share food with you, there’s a tradition of returning the bowl with something else inside…This is a regular habit in Turkey with any food offered – you never return a food bowl or plate empty.

Helps to keep connections…create memories to be cherished…

Strangely, the nearest I’ve come to this sharing of food in my life was under lockdown this year – my neighbours showed up with a slice of cake.


Grains as Symbols of Renewal

Grains – rice, lentils, etc – indicate prosperity in areas where they’re not a luxury food but have symbolic value. Wheat is in the center of rituals in wheat-growing areas. Rice would be a festive food in northern countries because imported and bought with money. …[Both] grains and fruits are in the hope of a prosperous and fertility in the coming year…

Just like the egg breads of Ukraine…

Aşure aka ‘Noah’s pudding’, a wheat-berry porridge sweetened with sugar, enriched with beans,chickpeas, nuts and dried fruits (raisins, apricots, figs) flavoured with rosewater. is cooked in huge pots and distributed to neighbours, friends… Hope and symbol of prosperity for the year ahead…

On Ensuring Harvest

The end of winter, when the rains will soon come, is a time of hope; whereas in the cold north it’s the return of the sun that is the sign of coming life…

In India, anticipation of spring in the form of a display of flowers and fruit is an expression of hope, as the inclusion of neem (for health), jaggery (sweetness), pepper (spiciness), salt (signifies fear), raw mango (lemony sharpness)…

Lengthy preparation of the display is a reminder to work hard to make your wishes come true. …

The Balinese also do these arrangements for celebrations as well as temple offerings. …a beautiful tradition to celebrate bounty and the need to be thankful. …

I had a Christmas in Calcutta and our friend put candles and a petals in a copper bowl of water in front of a mirror, so now I know why …your own reflection is the mirror tells you that you are the god and god is in you.

The Significance of Surprise

In the Indian Vishu Kani, an element of surprise is delivered by keeping the fruit-flower arrangement hidden overnight….. Like waking up on Christmas day when Santa has come in the night. …

The same happens in Germany for the Christmas tree, which was only lit and revealed on Christmas Eve to open the celebration…

Exactly so – with a bell rung! …First sight, that first vision of plenty…what a wonderful way to teach kids…that food is a part of life, and life is dependent on the planet…

Priya’s arrangement demonstrates hope for a meal tomorrow…a transition to food security. …

For us it was Christmas Eve: we were sent to our room, while my parents (Christkind) decorated the tree and put out the presents and cookies. We were summoned with a bell: my father revelled in the role – he loved holidays – my mother did all the other work, but this part was his….

In Scotland, there’s a long tradition of first-footing [going from house to house as a visitor after midnight] for a slice of Black Bun (rich fruit-cake baked in a pastry-case). The hope is that your first footer is a dark-haired, dark-eyed man bearing a piece of coal for the fire [rather than a blond blue-eyed Viking fresh off his long-boat for a spot of rape and pillage]. First vision: use your right foot to enter a room.

On Celebratory Ingredients

Some people need absolutely to have the same thing every year: others are open to new rituals and foods etc…

Nutmeg is in lots of Christmas favourites, so in a way, there is some of Indonesia in all of our celebrations…

We usually do a Christmas market with my German cousins: they just sent me lebkuchen…

Usually we get trays of satsumas – the kids inhale them – but I’m not seeing them when shopping online.

We always got tangerines in our St Nicolaus Day boot – and a few nuts…

Yes – a tangerine or orange in the foot of the stocking was non-negotiable…

We experiment wildly around the dietary preferences of family and loved ones: we used to double everything at Thanksgiving: one traditional and one innovative for each of the usual dishes…

When my daughter was vegetarian, we adapted all dishes but the main. Lots of non-meat umami…

We are looking forward to our roast goose and red cabbage…

My mother makes a deeply unpleasant red cabbage every year…

I think one of the reason why Christmas food is about citrus, spice and dried fruit so much is an attempt to bring the warmth of where those things are from to the dark and cold of winter…

There are no big gatherings this year, but there is no shortage of food! The exchanges started two weeks ago. A lot of rice-cakes, fruit, and cookies have been flying in and out of the door. The thing that strikes me about Christmas dinner in the West is that it’s just about the last ritual that almost everyone engages in…

It’s why families coming together through marriage can generate trouble around the table: whose stuffing wins? When we share food together we all smell right to each other – it’s atavistic…

There are fashions in Christmas food in the UK. My parents were German refugees and for Christmas we had lebkuchen etc. They also lived in Italy, where we had panettone, which were difficult to find in 50s but easily available and traditional now.

The next Kitchen Table is on 21st January 17:00 – 18:30 (UK time)
Can Food Really Bring People Together? Kamal Mouzawak of Souk el Tayeb in Beirut Believes So.

OFS Kitchen Table Report (No. 2)

Diaspora as a force for change
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Clockwise: Munira Mahmoud, Devaky Sivadasan, and Asma Khan

We were privileged to have three remarkable women for the second OFS Kitchen Table to talk about “Women and Diaspora : Making – Do and Rebuilding, For Food, With Food”

Hosted by the formidable Asma Khan, Munira Mahmoud and Devaky Sivadasan intimately shared their stories of how they started their lives again from zero, in a foreign place, amidst a foreign culture, a language unknown to them, unfamiliar smells and tastes. How, through food, they kept themselves together under hardship, overriding all obstacles.

If you missed being there virtually, following is a digest of the talking-points from the chatline…
For the full experience of Kitchen Talk check yourself in at https://vsymp.oxfordsymposium.org.uk/event/

Asma

At first when I opened my restaurant I stayed in the background. Then I thought, why am I hiding? You can’t have my food if you don’t have me.

Chat-line
So true. It’s the case also with so many ethnic communities living in Nepal…

They cannot have my food if they don’t want me. It’s a matter of acceptance…

Accept and also respect – what’s often missing is respect…

Does your flavor and food change people’s mind-set towards more tolerance and accepting each other!?…

Spices help me ‘travel’ In the “before times”, what I brought home from every trip was spices. Now we are using them to marinade our memories and create new landscapes.

Devaky

France has given me the anonymity to be who I want to be. I am a naughty cook – I mix things up – for instance, dried mango powder works brilliantly with rosemary and thyme.

Chat-line
It’s hard to change the psychology of people, especially in France…

It is very difficult to change people’s psychology – anywhere!…

With all that is published on the Internet, there is also so much misinformation about the various cuisines and spices – as a food scientist, I wonder where entrepreneurs like you go for reliable information to substantiate your work?…

Why do you think these three need to substantiate their work?…

People believe chefs more than they believe doctors and the food industry. What they say means more to people everywhere…

The differences are not in ingredients but technique…

Is food a way to integrate more into the community? So diaspora is a way of getting freedom from the constraints of community? Do you feel that people are relating to you differently now that they are more acquainted with your food?

On being a women in a man’s world

Munira

It was the food that kept them coming, that broke that barrier. When people eat, they don’t find it weird.

Asma

There is no box big enough that you can put me into it. I don’t have to burn everything I am to be free. Women educate the next generation – so it’s most important that they accept themselves in all their complex origins.

Devaky

My father told me never to forget that I come from a privileged background – we had a roof over our heads, food on the table, and went to school. There’s always problem with fitting and not fitting. “Fitting in” amongst your own evolves into a challenge. Soon after I opened, a customer came into my restaurant in Marseilles when we were between services, he couldn’t believe that the woman sweeping the floor was the chef-patron.

Chatline
There’s always a problem about who is ‘allowed’ to lead. Applies to science, the Arts, industry etc….

On ‘ethnic’ versus fine-dining’

Chatline
Do you have your brand and copyright ?..seems to me the differences are in technique…

Isn’t the racism in eating reflected in the attitude of “ethnic food” vs fine dining? It is hard, I understand, to convince some to pay above fast food prices for “ethnic food” – separated from cuisine. Sometimes? No question that that terrible name “ethnic food” is disparaging and people won’t pay properly for it. See Krishnendu Ray’s writing about it…

Yes — The Ethnic Restauranteur by Ray is foundational…

I think it would be really interesting to discuss what would be a better term than ‘ethnic’ food, or should we really not lump it all together and identify each food-culture or, as I sometimes say, “non-classical fine dining”?…

Someone gave a testimony for my food. calling it “amazing oriental food”…

How about “International food”? I struggle with this too…

What technique can you use to sell culture within food?…

There’s also the issue of cultural appropriation: from chicken tikka to bagels (with bacon?!)…

Just call it fine dining. No need to say “non-classical”…

Instead of ‘ethnic’ what about global majority food, to borrow from critical race studies…

Or just call it ‘food’….“Fine dining” equals white dining…

A similar discrimination exists in the Chinese culture within the Chinese community – many Chinese people raised in the West are referred to as ”bananas” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside…

I worked with a mixed team – Ugandan, Bangladeshi, Nepali, English, Bhutanese – it was very challenging dynamics. But worked out in the end, just people working together, one goal, sitting down to eat every day for 8 weeks; but we all had a common thread of experience of displacement…

I find ‘global’ better than ‘international’ -important to keep it more general…

I don’t agree that white dining and fine dining are synonymous. Many cuisines have more everyday family food, street food, bistro like food and fine dining, Indian, Ethiopian, surely this applies to all food.

On colour in people and food

Chat-line
The prejudice against skin colour even extends, albeit hardly comparable, to food, mainly grains and seeds. Instead of valuing their brown, black etc skins, ‘refined’ white food is considered ‘better’. In fact it is denatured, vastly reduced in fibre and phytonutrients which are concentrated in those beautiful richly coloured skins and now recognised as vital for our health and immunity. Maybe because rich and powerful people of ancient cultures sought to distinguish themselves? Would love to know…

There does seem to be a general cultural prejudice that prefers light to dark in skin colours, foods etc – I wonder whether it is perhaps ultimately associated with the fact that we are drawn to light – ie our life comes from the sun?!…
The bias towards dark color also extends to foods. Dark colored grains used to be shunned until recently, when someone decided that “ancient grains” must be fashionable and “good for you”…
In Iceland, many people prefer a white lamb’s head to a dark one – and the white-skinned side of a plaice to the dark-sided.

On the shared language of food

Asma

Food is our most profound shared language. If you sit at my kitchen table, I will take you away to a different culture.

Chatline
Food is nostalgia and a massive part of all our identities. I arrived in the UK more than 20 years ago, and a constant search for Balkan foods which weren’t and still aren’t that easy to come by at led me to meet and visit parts of London I probably wouldn’t have seen had it not been for my nostalgia…

How does the search for foods, ingredients, tastes that you miss and want to cook with, drive your exploration of places/towns/countries you live in?…

Asma said how damaging it is to separate food from people, and as an Irish woman living in a post-colonial country, where we had 700 years of British rule, our food history was fully disrupted. It is only in recent years that we as a country are discovering our Irish food and able to be proud of it…

There is a famous Turkish singer, she says: You can take your recipes and songs with you, not your cupboards…

Annalakshmi is a very interesting initiative in Tamil Nadu. It is a very nice restaurant run by women – housewives, destitute women, grandmas, just anyone who wants to cook. The restaurant has been for many decades and has many branches…

For me, food gave me the comfort of home while breaking away from its confinements…

Spices help me travel.

The next Kitchen Table is on 16th December 17:00 – 18:30 (UK time) Shared Visions: Expressions of hope through food on the table.

OFS Kitchen Table Report (No. 1)

When Marion Nestle and Scott Barton pulled up a chair at the OFS Kitchen Table to discuss Food, Power and the Powerless with some hundred fellow-guests, it was clear that the conversation would be tough and to the point.
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L to R: Marion Nestle and Scott Barton

Asking tough questions and looking for the right answers is what we hope to do at OFS Kitchen Table – an informal, friendly, no-holds-barred monthly gathering where we debate a single subject with invited guests whose views we need to hear. Established by special request from this year’s v-Symposiasts, attendance is open to all – just book in and turn up.

What follows is a digest of the talking-points from the chatline – for the full experience, check yourself in at https://vsymp.oxfordsymposium.org.uk/event/

From US: For Marion and Scott: what’s your opinion on providing a first class each day in every primary school, based on edible pedagogy with active participation? All subjects can incorporate food into their respective curriculums to ensure that each child gets a meal at the start of each school day.

From UK: A good part of my work is working with children as well as adults, and the one of key influences is getting kids involved in fruit and veg early on. It’s the pleasure to explore which impacts highly on later life-choices thru the idea of getting all children involved in school do like in Japan and Indian, where children respect food and develop a healthy attitude towards food and valuing its impact on health and the environment.

From Demark: In Copenhagen, some Farmers organise themselves by offering bags with fresh greens/produce to the public on a weekly basis – some restaurants turn their restaurants into groceries – my fishmonger who normally only sell to restaurants have started a new idea after closing of top restaurants: a box of mixed fresh fish to the people – lots of initiative since the pandemic.

From Ireland: In Ireland, we now have a number of schools with edible gardens. Local communities, parents, garden centres, chefs and producers are helping teachers and children to manage them. Children and parents are now asking schools to put one in. Change is happening on the ground, but there’s a lack of support at government level!

From UK
: Immigration, if it’s done anything in UK, is to improve things – both in terms of restaurants and shops. East Europeans generally would eat better snacks than UK indigenous and so it goes. Brazilians in UK that I have worked with ate better than the locals.

From US: Shelves of packaged/prepared/processed foods and the meat counters in Ohio were empty when the pandemic started. Fresh fruits and vegetables bins were overflowing because no one was shopping for “perishables.”

From Greece: Subscribe to farms. Check the farm in your area and subscribe to get regular boxes of seasonal produce. Subscriptions have quadrupled with the pandemic.

From Brazil: In Brazil we have something called a Basic Bag that people under a certain salary level or on a food stamps program that does not have canned food at all – black beans – rice – flour etc

From UK: In the UK there has been some concern that food parcels for those shielding and more recently for students needing to self-isolate has been poor quality, highly processed and not taking account of special diets whether because of allergies or religious restrictions. Very concerning.

From US: In the US plant-based meals have not been the norm so people look to substitutes — isn’t it part of being culturally relative? So many rich cuisines can be vegetarian / vegan but they are not “familiar” here. Like the example Marion gave about being grateful for having a vegan “burger” instead of saying they love a good aloo masala.

From UK: Re the US being ‘ahead’, I actually meant in terms of the negative trends in food, not the positive ones…although of course the US was a pioneer in many of the initiatives we now think of as part of the Food Movement – so they were the first off the tracks in reaction to the inequalities of industrial food, for good reason….

From US: A cheaper way to educate children about food is by reuniting children with nature and showing them how to gather and eat free food. I understand this is harder in built up areas but urban foragers are finding more and more in the concrete jungle.

From UK: The primary action is re-ordering our insane economic system. The normalisation of the tiny number of global rich getting richer while the rest of us get poorer….. A significant way that happens is because we have tax havens where $25+ billion is parked and used without any taxation paid in the countries where that money was earned. Amazon, Apple, etc, etc. Before the Reagan / Thatcher economic revolution, businesses paid tax —for schools, health, ….in short the social safety net.

The next Kitchen Table is on 16th December 17:00 – 18:30 (UK time) Shared Visions: Expressions of hope through food on the table.

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Painting by Elisabeth Luard

Announcing the first OSF Kitchen Table: Tickets available

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Painting by Elisabeth Luard

Book now to pull up a chair at the very first OSF Kitchen Table on Tuesday October 20th for our first informal, interactive gathering by special request from this year’s v-Symposiasts. Join Marion Nestle and Scott Barton as they dig deep into global food politics and corporate opportunism. Attendance is open to all and the spirit, as always at Symposium events, will be as co-operative, lively and inclusive as possible.

So if you missed out on July’s block-busting roller-coaster of a v-Symp, now’s your chance! Better still, make it a regular date as we’ll be scheduling more-or-less monthly meetings from now on till next July (we’re still working on the programme). As with our Zoom meetings at the v-Symp, everyone present will have a chance to make their voices heard. We’ll start at 1900 Oxford-time, and tickets are available here.

Alan Davidson and the Symposium’s Turkish connection

Charles Perry pays tribute to the diplomat and food historian Alan Davidson, an incurable romantic who changed the course of food history

Elisabeth Luard writes: In celebration of our Turkish connection (more than forty-strong at this year’s V-Symp), first-timers and anyone curious to know a little more about our beginnings might like to meet long-time Symposiast and sometime Trustee, Charles Perry, friend for many years of the Symposium’s founding-father, the late Alan Davidson. Their enduring friendship probably had as much to do with a shared view of the world – both men did not always follow the rules – as the study of food-history. As an internationally respected authority on medieval Arabic cookery manuscripts, in 2005, Charles translated the Kitâbu’t-Tabih of Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi under the title A Baghdad Cookery Book for Prospect Books, the Symposium’s publishing arm. This, however, is not the whole story. Charles’s early life included personal experience of the psychedelic 1960s in San Francisco, eight years as staff-writer on Rolling Stone followed by the publication of a history of Haight-Ashbury. In 1981, Charles attended the first full Oxford Symposium at St. Antony’s, contributing thereafter most years to the published Proceedings. In later years – 1990-2008 – he served as a staff writer for the food section of the Los Angeles Times, and in 1995 he co-founded the Culinary Historians of Southern California.
Our founding-father’s enthusiasm for all things Turkish is recorded in his friend’s affectionate obituary published in the Istanbul-based scholarly journal, Cornucopia, issue 30, 2003/2004.

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Alan Davidson. Courtesy of Charles Perry

Alan Davidson was many things: diplomat, novelist, publisher, encyclopedist, patron of the new phenomenon of scholarly food writing…. In all his activities he easily found time to be an influential friend of Turkish cuisine.

There were always at least two sides to Alan. One was the serious, scholarly boy from Leeds who took a double first in Classical Greats at Oxford and went on to be British ambassador to several countries. The other is suggested by a recurring character in the comic stories he wrote at Oxford (one of which was published in Punch in 1948): an eager, incurable romantic, beating his wings against the limitations of the everyday.

In 1962, his American-born wife asked whether he would help her sort out the varieties of fish for sale in the markets of Tunis, mostly unfamiliar, often sold under mysterious Arabic or Greek names. He looked into the matter and realised it would require considerable research, scientific and historical as well as linguistic and culinary: in short, the writing of a novel kind of book about fish.

This challenge seemed to unite his serious and adventurous sides. The resulting pamphlet – later expanded at the urging of the cookery writer Elizabeth David into Mediterranean Seafood (Penguin, 1972) – ultimately led him to turn away from his diplomatic career. In 1975, after the fall of Laos, his last ambassadorial posting, he took early retirement to become a writer, at first specialising in fish.

When I met him in 1980, he had recently taken three epochal steps that would change the course of food history. He had started a small publishing operation, Prospect Books, to reprint historical cookbooks; now headed by his friend Tom Jaine, it has used the slogans “Every volume a brick in the wall of knowledge” and “Each title more arcane than the last”. He had published curious pieces of food writing that could find no home in the commercial press, calling it Petits Propos Culinaires (usually abbreviated to PPC)… And as a fellow of St Antony’s College, he had convened a symposium about cookery and cookery books, which has evolved into an annual event at which unusual food scholarship from all over the world is welcome.

It is through these various activities that he made contact with Turkey. In 1984, the food writer Claudia Roden, a frequent Oxford Symposiast [and now its President], wrote a report for PPC on one of the annual symposiums on Turkish food that Feyzi Halıcı organised in Konya during the 1980s. In 1986, the Davidsons attended Halıcı’s First International Food Congress (Birinci Milletlarası Yemek Kongresi), at which they presented a joint paper on ‘English Perceptions of Turkish Cookery in the 18th and 19th Centuries’.

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Claudia Roden at the Konya International Food Congress. Courtesy of Nevin Halıcı

For Jane Davidson, it was something of a homecoming. The daughter of an American ambassador to Turkey, she had fond memories of glamorous diplomatic balls and romantic outings on the Bosphorus during the 1940s. For Alan, it was a revelation – not only about the quality of Turkish food but the keen intellectual interest the Turks were taking in their culinary heritage. On his return to England, he wrote a glowing report of the congress for PPC, noting the eager coverage the congress received from the Turkish press. (I saw this for myself in 1992, when Turkish television clamoured to interview me about my discovery that some medieval Arab cookbooks included a dish with a Turkish name – karnıyarık – but that it was a pastry, not the stuffed eggplant dish that goes by that name today.)

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Clockwise from top left: Charles Perry, Sri Owen, Jane and Alan Davidson and Jill Norman

He also noted the encyclopedic researches on Turkish regional cuisine that were being published by Feyzi Halıcı’s sister, Nevin. The Davidsons, Claudia Roden and their circle were instrumental in bringing her work to the attention of Europe and America, resulting in the publication of her English-language book Nevin Halıcı’s Turkish Cuisine (Dorling Kindersley, 1989). PPC has published a number of articles by Nevin Hanım, and she has attended several Oxford Symposiums.

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Nevin Halıcı and Feyzi Halıcı at the Konya International Food Congress.Courtesy of Nevin Halıcı

In 1999, Davidson’s chef d’oeuvre, the project he had been working on since 1976, came to fruition with the publication of The Oxford Companion to Food (OUP), a 1,036-page encyclopedia reflecting his scholarly interests, and also his subtle wit and love of the curious and unexpected. By this time, he had begun to have health problems and consciously started taking steps to ensure that Prospect Books, PPC and the Oxford Symposiums would flourish when he was no longer around. On December 2, he lost consciousness at his home in Chelsea and was rushed to hospital, where he died without awakening. He leaves his wife, Jane, and three daughters.

One consolation his family and his literally countless friends have is that his labours, and his unique role as the centre of a worldwide network of food scholars, had been gloriously recognised the preceding month, when the government of the Netherlands awarded him the prestigious Erasmus Prize.

The prize committee praised him for almost single-handedly elevating the study of food to scholarly respectability. His friends would agree, but to them it seems only part of the purely beneficent influence of his life.

This article appears here by kind permission of author and publisher.

The First Voyage of Starship V-Symp

Naomi Duguid: Final Report from a Crewmember
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Young chefs in conversation with Harold McGee and Tim Kelsey.

Each year the Symposium is like a vigorous green garden of aromatic and sometimes spicy conversations and ideas. And this year, magically, even more so, as we travelled on the good starship VSYMP for nearly four weeks. Now that we’ve docked, to give us time to plot our next travels, it’s time to reflect on where we’ve been. What a voyage!

When the Trustees realised that we’d need to either go virtual or completely cancel the Symposium this year, we opted for the unknown: “Let’s try to give people the chance to connect over food and thinking and conversation about food in all its aspects, even if it all has to happen at a distance.” It was an ambitious, perhaps audacious is the word, decision.

And this experience we’ve all been on, that has depended on the hard work and generosity of many, especially all our wonderful tech support people and our dedicated, congenial web developers at Igloo, and some good luck too, has been more memorable than any of us could have imagined.

I held my breath with anticipation on June 30th when the VSymp site went live for the first time. And then I remember laughing with pleasure at its spaciousness and its possibilities: recipes! photos! cross-connections with other Symposiasts! The Fringe! a train ride to Oxford! And our Chair Elisabeth Luard welcoming us all with charm and grace.

Between that day and the start of the Symposium weekend a lot of tech matters still needed to be figured out, and they were, sometimes on the fly, by a committed and sometimes crazed crew led by our Director Ursula Heinzelmann and Trustee David Matchett. Could we do breakout sessions at our social events on the weekend? How would it work if we just did it arbitrarily? These were some of the many questions that got answered by doing. The tech hosts moved us around, we met each other and chatted in various configurations. The whole process was fun and very freeing in many ways.

On the noticeboard and in those early social conversations I learned that some people had already made some of the recipes from David Tanis and Asma Khan, and from Fogo Island, and were planning to make more. That cooking and tasting and reporting back continued through the weeks of the conference, reminding us all that there are many ways to share food.

It was a treat to be welcomed to the weekend on Friday afternoon by our president Claudia Roden, sitting gracefully in her green garden, rather than up on a platform. Her words and her presence are always a promise of good things to come, as well as a reminder of the many years Symposiasts have been meeting to talk about food in all its aspects, and to eat together.

Happily our tech team had taped a backup of philosopher Charles Spence’s opening keynote on Gastrophysics, because though, ironically, he was one of the few Symposiasts actually in Oxford in July, he had technical problems and could not deliver his presentation live. We did get to ask him questions afterwards, in a discussion hosted with ease by Len Fisher, but not to see him, for his tech problems continued. In some way those first-session glitches felt like a good-luck omen to me: if we could survive that early bumpy ride, then the Starship was truly launched.

There were great conversations after the keynote, over gin from the Isle of Harris (or a substitute), and then we moved on to Fogo Island, with its beauties and its hardships, and a glimpse of the foods and traditions that sustain the people of the island. At the bar afterwards the talk was lively. We never managed to go to breakout sessions, because we were all so entranced by what we were hearing from Zita Cobb and chef Timothy Charles of Fogo Island Inn, about the variety of berries on the island, the traditional way cod was fished and salted, and much more. Then it was time to watch Fabrizia Lanza’s moving film “Amaro” from Sicily, our third island of the evening.

Saturday’s “One Good Spice” lunch was a knockout, with recipes by David Tanis and spice and herb wisdom from Jill Norman. The Tanis cooking videos got applause from many, with their calm tone and lovely clarity. And Instagram has been loaded with images of people’s versions of his courgette pancakes and his black-pepper lamb. In the afternoon we had our second fascinating keynote, by scholar of Chinese herbs and medicine Vivienne Lo, with an informative discussion hosted by Fuchsia Dunlop: who better to ask questions about herbs in China past and present?

Saturday drinks at the end of the afternoon started with a talk about anise and the rakı made with it in Turkey, with lots of interesting conversations in the breakout rooms. It was a great opener to the Asma Khan dinner with its array of recipes that are still entrancing cooks on several continents. Asma Khan is thoughtful and powerful in her conception of what needs to happen in the food world. Her ideas have challenged us all to think freshly about what is possible. The warm conversations in the breakout rooms at the post-dinner bar reflected that, as did the live discussion with her the following week which touched many of us deeply.

As if we hadn’t already been dazzled by aromas and flavours, after dinner on Saturday we visited the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul via Gamze Ineceli’s lovely documentary, travelling virtually to a place that many long to visit or to return to when travel becomes more possible.

Sunday morning brought two prize-givings. First came the announcement of the Sophie Coe prize, awarded to Suzanne Belovari for her essay “Viennese Cuisine Before Hitler: One Cuisine in the use of Two Nations.” Next came the Symposium’s Rising Scholar Award, given to Julia Fine, who presented her very clear and interesting paper on turmeric’s culinary role as a colouring in food in early modern Britain.

At lunch we were invited to come up with our own meal. For some it was lunchtime, for others supper, and in North America it was breakfast. We watched a lovely film about the great Sri Owen, and then engaged in a fascinating live discussion with Sri, as well as with the film-maker Janice Gabriel. It was thrilling to watch and listen as Sri Owen talked with her long-time friend Claudia Roden, and to marvel at how much both of them, so well-loved, have contributed to our understanding of the world.

In the afternoon we heard the reports from the Young Chefs (weren’t they terrific? we hope to welcome them back next year) and then had the pleasure of listening to Harold McGee’s keynote, focussed on smells. He talked about basil, thyme, and mint, about why and how herbs defend themselves with strong smells and tastes, as well as other weapons, and much more. The live discussion of his talk on the following day, hosted by Clive Cookson, was equally illuminating. I’m impatient to get hold of his new book Nose Dive, due out in the autumn.

The day wrapped up then, but unlike our usual end of Symposium Sunday afternoon, there was no room for regret that it was over, for it was moving into its live discussion phase.

Instead of being crammed into a weekend, the papers and presentations, were instead posted and available to be read and listened to at any time, no longer confined to a time and a place. And the presentations will stay up on the site, now that we’ve come to the end of the VSymp. (The papers, being drafts, will come down, as will the Q & A under them, so that they can be edited by their authors and by Proceedings editor Mark McWilliams, and made ready for publication.)

Despite the fact that we were going virtual, Trustee Cathy Kaufmann, who has a genius for programming as well as remarkable attentiveness to the intersections between paper topics, had arranged the weekend’s schedule into panels of presenters as if we were actually going to be at St Catz. That work of hers paid off in the groupings of the “panels”: two or three papers whose topics intersected at the practical or theoretical or metaphorical level or all of them. The result was that when we moved into the live discussions – one or two a day – the papers and presenters, and also the Symposiasts attending the discussions and posing questions in the chat threads, came to life in a remarkable way that we rarely are able to achieve in the limited time we have for each session at St Catz.

The live discussions have been extremely interesting. And the chats alongside too. I made it to most of them because I felt greedy. I didn’t want to miss out, and unlike at St Catz, I didn’t have to. Judging from the number of people came to them, it seems many Symposiasts felt the same way. They shaped my week: each day or two I’d read the upcoming papers and watch the presentations I haven’t seen already, in time to be ready for the next discussions. The themes of the panels were wonderfully varied, and the papers travelled in time and space, from Apicius and garum in Rome, to cinnamon harvest in Sri Lanka, both colonial and present, to chile pepper varieties and their processing and use in China, Turkey, and Japan, and in hot sauce in the USA.

The discussions also gave us a chance to expand our personal tools, both the Wiki-editathon sessions with Roberta Wedge that demystified and encouraged becoming a contributor to Wiki, and the two sessions on Barbara Wheaton’s remarkable research tool, The Sifter (www.thesifter.org). And on our penultimate day we were again able to spend time with Sri Owen, cook and writer and beloved Symposiast as she talked to us and in conversation with Elisabeth Luard, Claudia Roden, and Jill Norman about her food and her personal history. It was a remarkable session.

As we approached the last discussion days, I found myself bracing for the end of the VSymp, cushioned by my anticipation of the last keynote and also the topic selection process, one of my favourite parts of the Symposium each year. Both lived up to my expectations, and in fact surpassed them.

In his keynote food scholar and author Krishnendu Ray took an informed birds-eye view of the Symposium, discerning larger threads in the presentations and highlighting themes, and talking about the ways in which the Symposium differs from most academic meetings. Themes he noted included the near eradication of foraging and the loss of traditional knowledge of specific plants; thoughts about gastronomic logic as opposed to market logic; and the sense of the “anglosphere  devouring others” which I took to be the consumption by the entitled and wealthy of the production and resources of the less powerful. Altogether his talk was a wonderfully detailed reminder of the richness of the papers this year and of the ideas they explored. Krishnendu also had praise for the general approach of the Symposium. He pointed out that Symposium papers avoid “methodological nationalism” and that responses to papers in the Q & A and discussions are generally positive and constructive, the obverse of the academic tendency to “tear down”. As Fuchsia Dunlop pointed out, this reflects the original goal of Symposium co-founder Alan Davidson that the Symposium should take an irreverent approach to academic disciplines.

In the discussion following his keynote, Krishnendu talked about the way in which disgust for segments of society, often expressed as food disgust, is now used as a political weapon in both India and the US to marginalize non-dominant populations. It was a powerful reminder of the importance of food as a way of understanding the worlds of power and politics, economics and culture. And it reinforced the role of the Symposium as a bridge between disciplines and between academia and the wider world, as Rachel Laudan and others pointed out in the chat. Krishnendu also spoke eloquently about the need for integrity in our engagement with the food culture of others. We could have continued listening and discussing for a lot longer.

But we had to move on to the delightfully contested question of the theme for 2023. There were many appealing topics full of potential, from “cities” to “emotions”; from “borders” to “technology”. We went into breakout rooms to talk about our choices and ideas, a novelty permitted by Zoom. To give a feel of the noisy atmosphere when we make these decisions at St Catz we all unmuted briefly and talked at each other loudly. The suspense was tangible. And finally, on the third round of voting, it was decided by a clear margin: the theme for 2023 is “Rules & Ritual.”

Meantime we were reminded by Ursula that to keep our expanded vision alive we’ll need to raise substantial funds (btw: here’s where you can invest in our future). Having taken this first flight on the Starship, I can say that everything feels possible, if we all pull together to make it happen.

I’ve been trying to sort out what exactly has made the whole VSymp so memorable and enjoyable. I think many elements all worked together, like spices and herbs in a well-judged dish. This as my impressionistic take on why I’ve loved this voyage and why I look forward to the next one.

This year for the first time, because events were spread out, we were able to watch all the presentations, rather than having to choose between equally fascinating topics in different rooms scheduled simultaneously. That meant that those who wanted to could participate in the live discussions in a more meaningful way. And with a full hour for discussion there was time to delve more deeply into various fascinating aspects with the presenters, instead of being short of time.

There’s nothing like full access to make a conference feel extremely rewarding.

The V-Symp brought us a sound-track: amazing and surprising music, each time specially chosen to match the panel topic, like wine to match a feast, that welcomed us in and ushered us out of each discussion session. It became a passion for many, the music.

Without the constraints of the college’s limited accommodation, we were able to double the number of Symposiasts from 250 to over 500, which was great. But more importantly, the lower cost of attending, as well as the convenience of not having to leave home and young children and other responsibilities, meant that more people from near and far (over 40 countries) were able to participate. It’s thrilling that we have been able to open the doors to a wider world. We are all thereby enriched.

And that richness continues. While this voyage has come to an end, many parts of the Starship are still accessible. The site will continue to enable the Notice Board and our conversations by mail, so that we can continue to stay in touch and to share ideas. The V-Fringe will stay posted, but is no longer live for new additions. The taped keynotes and also the paper presentations will be up, but the draft papers will be gone. The Bloomsbury Food Library access ends on August 10, but the rest of the book stalls remain open.

On the human connection front, before we launched the Starship VSYMP I was hoping that the warmth and generosity of the live Symposium at St Catz would somehow survive its transposition to the virtual sphere. I wasn’t sure how that could happen, but it was to me the most important goal.

And I feel that we have all, together, really managed that, and more so. We chatted in the tea breaks and at the bar in the evening, in all together and in breakout rooms. We got to learn about our fellow Symposiasts and to recognise each other’s names and faces. I feel I met more people and built more of a connection with them than would have been possible in a short weekend, even though we have been virtual and not physically together. What a bonus.

I look forward to renewing our intimacy at next year’s Symposium, whether it is solely virtual or also has a live weekend as well. And meantime I’ll be contemplating our terrific 2021 theme – Food and Imagination – and the wondrous possibilities of the topic.

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V-Symposiasts listening to a panel talk.

Baking and Filming for the V-Symposium

Symposiast Gerhardus Geldenhuis volunteers his services with the movie-camera and the bread-oven
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Claudia Roden recording her welcome speech. Photo courtesy of Gerhardus Geldenhuis

I was filled with excitement when I was asked to film an opening piece for the V-Symposium with Claudia Roden.

And also – if I am honest – a bit of fear given the responsibility. That tinge of fear meant I triple checked the cameras for charged batteries, clean memory cards and recording formats. Tripods were checked, microphones tested and for good measure some filming in my friends garden to verify lens-choice.

I was thus well armed when I arrived in the leafy London suburb to do the filming. I was also at the time being extra cautious about getting sick so had been strict about outside contact and felt comfortable that I was not a carrier of Covid-19, the common cold or any other ailment, mental conditions being naturally excluded from this health statement!

I was warmly received by Claudia in her garden with coffee and snacks, and in between sipping my coffee and chewing on some dates, I was setting up equipment and scouting the best spot in the garden for filming. With the location decided and all the equipment set up, Claudia, being the consumate professional, offered a number of wardrobe alternatives for the filming. But I assured her that she looked lovely already and the colour was perfect for the camera – neither too dark nor bright. We also used a garden table as a prop, which I would happily have used bare, but Claudia suggested a tablecloth, which did look much better and emphasised the need for a women’s touch. The process of filming went really well, and was completed in two and a half takes, mostly because I was picky: when filming, more is always better than less.

Afterwards we had a lovely chat about food, life experiences, politics and heritage. It was getting dark by now. Which was my cue to pack up, have the last sip of by-now cold coffee and a last delicious date and drive back to home to edit the opening video, which I hope everyone will find as enjoyable to watch as the filming was for me.

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Set up in Claudia Roden’s garden. Photo courtesy of Gerhardus Geldenhuis

I had started my journey with this year’s subject back in October 2019, with the idea of making spiced breads as a small contribution to the meals over the weekend. I wanted to bake a bread that is delicious and intriguing that encourages conversation and hopefully someone walks away with new ideas about bread. So, armed with my new spice grinder and a copy of Jill Norman’s Herbs & Spices, I spent a few evenings after work reading through the book and deciding on a few possibilities. Turns out the results are decidedly mixed, I used the spice sparingly to start with because I did not want it to overpower the bread.

So this was not going to be simple or easy. The sourdough process of leaving the dough overnight plays a big part in the flavour, so not only had I to contest with finding or dreaming up a spice-mix that would be delicious, but it would also need to survive the assault of bacteria and yeast in my fridge overnight, and then face the final battle for flavour longevity in the oven.

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Photo courtesy of Gerhardus Geldenhuis

I began experimenting with different types of flour, emmer, khorasan, einkorn my own grounded rye and a great quality- type 55 (550 if you’re German) – and white flour from Shipton Mill (good enough for the Queen). The different types of flour bring additional flavour and texture. But for me good bread starts with the scent. It should smell amazing, a bit of nuttiness mixed with toastiness as the crust browns. It should have a crust that cracks and tears, it should be soft yet chewy. It should keep well and taste good right through its shelf-life. My boss at the bakery where I learned to bake, used to say all warm bread tastes great but the true test is when it’s cooled.

The journey, however, has reminded me of the symposium’s mission: to change the conversation, expand the table, improve the plate. Science allied to art produces good food. Science tells you that certain spices are water soluble and others are oil soluble, which affects the taste. Art is what enables you to decide which flavours work well together.

I am excited to have made the bread-experiment because I have been able to expand friends and family’s tables with new flavours while doing virtual bread courses during the Covid-19 crisis. I am also excited because I am now thinking about flavour in a whole new way and looking forward to applying this to my everyday cooking. Even though I was not to be able to share some of these tastes in person with fellow Symposiasts, it was worth it in the end.

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Gerhardus Geldenhuis and Tim Kelsey in St Catz kitchen. Photo courtesy of Gerhardus Geldenhuis

The Story of Amaro: Foraging for Bitter Greens in Sicily

Symposium Chair Elisabeth Luard introduces one of the evening events at the V-Symp
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. Photo courtesy of Anna Tasca Lanza

Fabrizia Lanza, owner and director of Anna Tasca Lanza, the world-renowned cooking school and centre of culinary knowledge in rural Sicily, is contributing a video, Amaro, an examination of the role of bitterness in foraged greens, to be premiered at the V-Symp as part of our evening programme of events.

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Fabrizia Lanza. Photo courtesy of Anna Tasca Lanza

Here’s a little of what Fabrizia says of what is intended as a first step in a continuing exploration of the appreciation of bitterness in foods in Sicily:

Amaro is our first step in a year-long research project on wild-gathered foods in Italy. Not all such foodstuffs are bitter, though many do indeed share this characteristic. We will be drawing on many of the things we present in Amaro, while digging deeper into the role of wild food in rural Sicily’s food landscape and culture.

The project will include studying the social bonds around foraging and consumption of bitter greens, how the production, sharing and preparation of wild foods impacts the structures of everyday life and the distribution of roles and tasks among groups and families.

At the same time as examining the role of bitter foodstuffs in Sicilian cuisine, we will be taking into account changes in today’s perception of food preparation in the light of Slow Food and the re-evaluation of authenticity in the culinary traditions of the island and elsewhere.

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Cavolicelli di Vigna. Photo courtesy of Anna Tasca Lanza

Bitterness is the least appreciated of the four flavours – five if you count umami. The message is danger, approach with caution. Cardoon, feverfew, wormwood, dandelion, chicory, olives, chestnuts are just a handful of our food-plants in which bitterness is present.

Cultivation, it’s fair to say, has emasculated the robust flavours appreciated by our ancestors, favouring mildness and sweetness, teaching our taste-buds to reject bitterness. Sweet, salty and sour are unchallenging since one can be made to balance the other.

Not so with bitterness. Bitterness is an absolute. Nature’s warning that a leaf or plant or fruit is poisonous. Babies hate bitterness – just a touch on the tip of the tongue produces instant rejection. Young children wrinkle their noses and spit. And with reason. It’s not until we can decide for ourselves what we like and don’t like that we are able to choose.

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Cooked Bitter Greens. Photo courtesy of Anna Tasca Lanza

As adults, instinct still warns of poison, but the intellect suggests enjoyment. Much as our tolerance for danger increases with every risk we take, the same is true of bitterness. We can teach ourselves to unlearn what instinct tells us, though some of us never do. And with reason. Bitterness in fruits and fungi – the wrong russula, an untrustworthy berry – is a warning you’ve made the wrong choice. Just a touch on the tip of the tongue and you’ll know.

Our ancestors discovered through trial and error that bitterness in otherwise edible roots – a few members of the bean family, cassava, certain roots and plant-foods that are dietary staples – could be leeched of their dangerous chemicals by soaking, burying, fermenting. In wild greens, bitterness is part of the attraction – once we learn to love it, we seek it out wherever we find it.

Bitterness, in short, is a pleasure worth cultivating. A shock to the taste-buds, challenge to the intellect, an iron fist in the velvet glove. It’s addictive. They’ve done the chemistry. You have been warned.

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Picked Bitter Greens. Photo courtesy of Anna Tasca Lanza

V-Symp guest chef David Tanis shares his Oxford Food Symposium Experience

My Oxford Symposium Experiences Thus Far
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David Tanis. Photo credit: Randal Breski

My first Oxford Symposium experience was in 2019. I had long wanted to attend, but the opportunity never arose until last year, when I was graciously invited by Darina Allen, the great force behind The Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland.

Ballymaloe, I must say, is an incredible institution—there really is no cookery school like it. I had been spending a couple of months’ sabbatical as guest chef there, and when Darina proposed I accompany her to Oxford, I jumped at the chance.

Should you ever get the chance to travel with Darina, by the way, do so without hesitation, and not only for the lively, intelligent conversation and camaraderie. She will have packed an incredible picnic box, filled with all manner of edibles, from sweets to savories, so eating airplane food will be out of the question, as will starving on the bus ride from London to Oxford. And there will be smoked salmon and buttered brown bread, too.

Arriving at St Catz was like a dream. I kept bumping into old friends and meeting new ones, as we sipped wine on the lawn before dinner. There was one surprise after another. How did I not know that my dear friend Gamze Ineceli from Istanbul was one of the organizing trustees? I was thrilled to see her and a group of Turkish friends.

Here was the fearless, prolific Naomi Duguid; the humble genius Harold McGee; Spanish food expert Maria Jose Sevilla, whom I hadn’t seen in years; nutrition scholar Marion Nestle; and of course the wonderful Claudia Roden and Elisabeth Luard.

There was Aglaia Kremezi, my good friend from Greece, who organized a dinner with beautifully seasoned frugal ingredients—incredible braised lamb and potatoes, among other treats. The women of the Hubb Community Kitchen in London gave us a beautiful Middle Eastern vegetarian lunch. A glorious feast was prepared by the chef and staff of El Mural de los Poblanos, from Puebla, Mexico. And David Matchett of London’s Borough Market presented a lunch with an assortment of women-produced cheeses, breads and other sundry delights.

The dining hall was filled with the most enthusiastic group of drinkers and diners, and the room absolutely hummed with conviviality. And I haven’t even touched on the non-dining hours spent in engaging seminars and brilliant presentations, all dealing with various aspects of Food and Power, the 2019 theme.

As the weekend wound down, I found myself in conversation with another good friend, Jill Norman, the well-known British editor and cookbook author. We spoke about the Symposium’s theme for 2020, Herbs and Spices. Jill is an authority in that field, and I have long used her guides to herbs and spices for reference in my own work. Before long, we were proposing to collaborate in some fashion to produce a meal for the 2020 sessions! And somehow our proposal was approved, though the menu was far from realized.

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Photo credit: Randal Breski

A concept I have played with quite a bit is the notion of letting one spice or herb dominate in a dish, rather than a blend or mixture. Not that there’s anything wrong with spice blends—indeed the world’s greatest cuisines depend upon them. What would Indian meals be without masalas of every sort, for instance, or Chinese roast pork without 5-spice powder? Yet, sometimes concentrating on a single herb or spice can be pleasant; though it is hardly revolutionary, it’s interesting. Black pepper is a spice that appeals to me from this vantage point. Chew on a peppercorn and you’ll see it is much more than a one-dimensional flavor. It is a spice with great depth.

Long story short, I came up with a menu called One Good Spice that would feature a unique herb or spice in each course: coriander, dill, black pepper, cumin, cardamom, saffron and ginger would all be represented, but separately. I would write the recipes and Jill would supply commentary on all the elements.

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Photo credit: Randal Breski

Then suddenly it was 2020 and a deadly worldwide virus meant international travel would cease to be possible. The Oxford Food Symposium, however, would still take place—just not in Oxford. Technology would make it possible for us to convene virtually. But how would we dine together?

I left Manhattan and moved into a little house in upstate New York to get away from the crowds. There I wrote the recipes and made a video of their preparation. They’ll be part of the 2020 V-Symp, as it is now affectionately called. Though I’d love to cook this meal for you, I hope you will find the recipes useful and make them at home. With luck next year we’ll gather again at St Catz.

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Photo credit: Aglaia Kremezi