August 2022

Oxford Food Symposium Trustee Carolyn Steel sums-up our 2022 theme of Portable Food/Food Away from the Table

What follows is extracted, with her permission, from Trustee Carolyn Steel’s summing-up as delivered on the final day of our 2022 Symposium.   

We met this year at St. Catz in some of the most challenging times the Symposium has ever known – with Covid, climate change, the war in Ukraine and cost of living crisis just some of the predicaments we face. In short, we met during times when the need for conviviality has rarely been greater.

As our first part-live, part-online symposium, this year’s gathering shared many attributes with portable food. There is something about food on the move that is provisional, ambiguous, transformative – and even magical. It can make us feel at home when we’re away. It can evoke powerful memories. It can make us feel emotional.  It can be a refuge, or a kind of prison.  It can connect us to people we love, or make us feel distant from them. It can bond us to new people and places, or prevent us from bonding with them.  It can help us celebrate rites of passage and mourn our loved ones.

In essence, portable food is about survival – and its history tells of how people across the world have used their skill and ingenuity in order to thrive in a variety of often difficult terrains and circumstances.  Portable food is thus about craft, tradition, inventiveness, resilience, geography and technology – the cornerstones of the inherited material culture that forms the basis of everything we do. Portable food is also about politics and power, and the degree to which one culture has been able to conquer and transform others.  Portable food, in short, spans time and space, and by doing so, encompasses the world – much as food of the imagination, last year’s subject, did. 

Most obviously, portable food is about going on a journey – and it is perhaps this transitional quality that raises so many questions that are already inherent in food – power, imperialism, identity, inclusivity and sustainability – in a new and potent way. In a sense, food away from the table exposes what the familiarity of the table often hides: the fact that food is what connects us most powerfully to one another and to the landscape; which is to say, to nature. Portable food thus raises issues that are often subsumed, or hidden, yet are also fundamental to who we are. Several papers this year made reference to the mundane, a term that has long fascinated me, since we use it to refer to something everyday, routine or boring, yet as the root of the word, mundus, tells us, it is actually speaks of the worldly and universal.  

This year, as one might expect, we visited a vast range of places, from Australia to Antarctica, from medieval and modern Egypt to ancient and modern Greece, from Israel, Indonesia, Italy, India, Iran, Jakarta and Japan to Mongolia, Mexico, the Netherlands and Nepal, from Peru to London (in the case of Paddington Bear and his marmalade sandwiches), from South Africa, South America and Spain to Turkey, Tblisi, Thailand, New Zealand and Outer Space.  

We’ve travelled by train, plane, ship, boat, car, bus, wagon, horse, sleigh, mule and canoe – and, of course, by foot. On the way, we’ve eaten foods that have been dried, fried, boiled, fermented, pickled, drained, baked, salted, canned, packed, processed, frozen or denatured in various ways to create a cornucopia of nutritious, redoubtable foods such as jerk beef, Qurut (dried Mongolian yoghurt balls) and Achar, a global Batavian concoction of salted, boiled and pickled vegetables apparently much prized in the days of the Dutch republic.

We’ve travelled from country to city, from summer to winter, from freedom to slavery, from oppression to emancipation, from war to peace, from darkness to enlightenment and from birth to death and back again. On the way we’ve experienced hunger and pleasure, comfort and discomfort, fear and danger, monotony and longing, celebration and transgression, confusion and revelation, joy and despair, the sacred and the profane. 

Perhaps because portable foods are themselves an attempt to capture a moment in time in a particular landscape and preserve it, they bring the question of the survival of food traditions – and their ultimate value – into sharp relief. What do we lose when we abandon such traditions? Our sense of belonging to a certain time and place, our sense of history and tradition, of community and identity, our cultural knowledge and even our essential survival skills all come under threat. The universality of such tales of loss suggests we are at a juncture where we need to ask ourselves whether the direction in which we’re travelling – if you’ll excuse the metaphor – is one we really want to take. And if it isn’t, what we can do to change course.

The role in our lives played by traditional portable foods is clearly changing – yet in a rapidly evolving world, they still have much to teach us about adaptability, agency and survival. In that sense, such traditions may prove stronger than we realize.  One territory in which portable foods still have undoubted potency is in the political sphere. As we learned from numerous speakers, portable food has a long and provocative history as a social disruptor and means of questioning established norms. 

If there is one thing we learned during this year’s symposium, it’s that food’s power to transform our lives remains undiminished – and it is here that our greatest hope of maintaining and strengthening our portable food traditions probably lies: in its capacity to show our love for one another through hospitality, a word whose derivation in the indo-European ghostis, meaning stranger (which also gave us the words host, guest, hostage, hospital and hostile), is testimony to its healing and transformative power, even across divides.  

We’ve been on a long journey, enduring hunger, danger, longing, conquest and oppression, yet also experiencing reconciliation, redemption and renewal along the way – but I’d like to finish where I started, with the aspect of portable food that I think may in some ways be key to all the rest: pleasure.