Why do foods differ across space? What are the trajectories of food cultures? How are ethics, sustainability and quality articulated through what we grow and what we eat? On the 23rd of May 2014, researchers from several departments of the university came together at Linacre College to explore these, and other, questions concerning food, drink and agriculture.
Convened by Technological Natures cluster members Rory Hill and Dr Peter Wynn Kirby, along with Venetia Congdon from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, and professional chef Amelia Earl, the symposium aimed to develop new ideas about food and foodways through the empirical cases and theoretical analyses of current research, and to put them in critical conversation across the disciplinary boundaries of the social sciences. Furthermore, because food is something we apprehend with all of our senses, the academic presentations were followed by a tasting and discussion session at the end of the symposium in which participants were able to encounter and examine new, innovative, hybrid and experimental foods. Questions of taste, quality, imagination, distinction, ethics, embodiment and sustainability which were raised in the academic presentations were then re-articulated, debated and responded to through practice.
Rory Hill introduced the symposium by discussing the analytical purchase offered, and problems encountered, in the notion of food frontiers, and related this discussion to his doctoral research on the contested concept of terroir in French agriculture. This was followed by a presentation from Dr Erika Nitsch, of the Institute of Archaeology, on how isotopic and weed functional attribute approaches can help us to understand crop management strategies in the past and present, and work as a starting point for conversations between archaeologists and farmers. Loretta Iengtak Lou then presented a paper on the sociality of vegetarianism in Hong Kong, drawing upon her doctoral research and reflecting upon wider issues of meat consumption and the environment in Chinese society. Several questions were posed to the speakers and interesting links made between the diverse subject matter presented.
Venetia Congdon introduced the second academic session following a tasting and discussion of traditional and novel Catalan confectionery. This was developed in her presentation in terms of the critical role of food in the making and re-making of regional identity in Catalonia, Spain. Dr Adam Gilbertson, of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, then presented a paper on the complex roles of food and money in the relationships and everyday food security of households in an informal settlement in Mombasa, Kenya. Felipe Roa-Clavijo, of the Department of International Development, made a subsequent presentation on the subject of Colombian agriculture in the years following the Second World War, using a Food Regime approach to connect local and global politics of food and trade. Finally, Dr Peter Wynn Kirby discussed the possible food futures presented to us in dystopian literature and film, and the resonance these have in present-day discussions of sustainability and ethical choices in food. Further questions were asked of the speakers, before Dr Kirby drew the academic sessions to a close and invited the participants to re-assemble for the tasting workshop.
Amelia Earl introduced this workshop by explaining the food and drink that would be tasted by participants and how these connected to present-day issues of quality, ethics and sustainability. Chef Amelia first proposed a blind asparagus tasting; to compare the flavour of two varieties grown at a distance of approximately 6,000 miles. This was a practical entry to the ‘food miles’ debate, examining the quality of the locally-grown and in-season Oxfordshire asparagus alongside that of its Peruvian counterpart. Next, the topics of foraging and ultra-local food were discussed by reference to a tasting of locally-gathered nettle soup. This was followed by a consideration of the controversies over the sustainability and expense of meat through the tasting of burgers prepared with 50% minced beef and 50% tofu. This was a compromise which achieved a satisfactory meaty flavour and impressed participants.
The topic of hybridity was then addressed with South Africa’s popular Pinotage wine, a drink made from a hybrid grape of two old French varieties first developed experimentally in the 1920s and now grown widely in South Africa. Further, white wines from Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire were sampled as part of a conversation on Britain’s inherent viticultural capacity and its growing wine industry. Chef Amelia then presented foods that have made few inroads thus far in the British diet. A seaweed salad was tasted by participants, followed by a selection of edible insects. Both of these are living things that are not considered in terms of their potential as food in some parts of the world, but serve as valuable delicacies in others. Indeed, much has been written on the possibility of insects as a sustainable source of protein and other nutrients in the future, even as they continue to serve in the present as trials for the squeamish in television entertainment.
A great deal of discussion and exchange ensued and many of the issues that were raised in the academic presentations were considered anew in light of the food and drink encountered in the tasting workshop. The perspectives of geographers, anthropologists, archaeologists, zoologists cultural historians and others were shared and debated throughout the afternoon. The conveners expressed their gratitude for the sponsorship and support provided to the symposium by the Technological Natures research cluster of the School of Geography and the Environment; the School of Anthropology; and Linacre College. Overall, it was felt that the symposium achieved its aims of stimulating conversation across disciplinary, and alimentary, boundaries.
The conveners are currently working to arrange publication of those papers presented at the symposium in a forthcoming issue of an academic journal. It is also hoped that the New Food Frontiers event will be repeated next year, with interventions from more researchers within the cluster and elsewhere in the university.
1: Dr Erika Nitsch presenting a discussion on archaeological methods and present-day agriculture.
2: Approaching matters of tradition, innovation and identity through Catalan food.
3: Venetia Congdon presenting her research on food and regional identity in Catalonia
4: Sampling an edible insect in the tasting workshop (from a choice of small crickets (Acheta domestica), bamboo worms (Omphisa fuscidentalis) and mole crickets (Gryllotalpidae family).