Next symposium topic read more

8 – 10 July at St Catz, Oxford,
and 15 – 31 July Online

Paper-proposers should consider situations where portability is essential, such as for nomadic groups, seasonal migrants, or travellers en route. Examples might include meals prepared with supplies carried or foraged by herdsmen shepherding flocks as part of transhumance or market delivery. Foods transported by (or to) labourers in their respective environments, such as charcoal-burners, woodsmen, migrant agricultural workers, foragers, shore-gatherers, or inshore and deep-sea fishermen. Among subjects that would repay investigation is food carried on pilgrimage or when provisioning an army on the march, whether for a journey to Compostela, or for the armies of Hannibal when crossing the Alps, of the iron-rations provided for contemporary soldiers in remote war-zones. Provisionings for long sea-voyages powered by oar or sail, as well as the special needs of Arctic and Antarctic explorers, astronauts’ space rations, airline meals, all require foods especially suited for portability and durability.

Many other situations require the making of a choice to eat away from the table. Among these, the trend for white-collar office workers to eat at their workstations, rather than leaving the office, suggests social change, as do takeaways and the accelerating pace of slot-machine and grab-and-go foodstuffs that provide instant nourishment. Many street foods and market snacks seem designed specifically for portability, such as the ice cream cone, while others are at home both on the table and in the hand: one might explore the social and cultural milieus that can make pizza both a knife-and-fork food and a portable snack. Consider also the social implications of men-only traditions such as earth-ovens, cooking-clubs and barbecues. Women-only gatherings can also take place away from the table – traditional wedding-preparations are often made in group-situations at specially-designated venues.

Among the most delightful examples of foods away from the table are those consumed in al-fresco and ephemeral venues, such as picnics, bacchanalia, feasts celebrating religious or seasonal festivals, food suitable for spectators at sporting events and participants at music-festivals. Investigation of literary or artistic depictions of real or imagined meals could also prove fruitful, as could foodstuffs supplied by miraculous intervention (manna from heaven, banquets in the gardens of paradise). Paper-proposers might also want to consider dishes brought to contributory meals such as potluck or potlatch gatherings with or without political and community-building purposes (whether real or imagined).

Portable food invites exploration of the material culture and new technologies devised to enhance transportability. Investigations might include tiffin and other lunch-boxes, thermoses, desco da parto, even doggie bags. The subject might also be examined from the perspective of the off-premises caterer who creates the portable feast, whether this is consumed sitting or standing, say, at weddings, funerals, cocktail parties, diplomatic or political receptions or any other gathering at which food is offered. A long history of preparers of portable meals that could warrant examination includes the cook-sacrificers hired in the Athenian agora, the ingenious late-medieval cooks who sold takeaway foods from cookshops, or followed peripatetic courts, or the Black entrepreneurs who found economic success through catering in 19th century America. Which is not to overlook contemporary versions of off-premises catering such as deliveries of ready meals and fast foods facilitated by apps that allow for instant ordering. The growth of these services during the Covid pandemic signals new ways of obtaining portable food, a trend that seems likely to continue.

In short, please consider any and everything edible – whether ready-prepared or in the form of raw ingredients or foraged in situ – whose primary requirement is portability.