The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery ended this past Sunday and I’ll share some highlights that I think will particularly interest our readers.
- “Ecotarian/Ecotarianism” – What do we call ourselves? “Ecotarian” was proposed as a catchall term for most perspectives basically against industrial food, but which vary in emphasis: locavore, vegetarian, sustainable, organic, committed to humane conditions and slaughter of animals for meat – i.e., that diverse group that is us. But is it precise and universally understood enough let’s say to become a meal option on a plane flight, asked Jessica Lee, who proposed the term?
- “Conscientious Production” – another pair of speakers attempted to categorize eco-friendly values as “conscientious production” (in contrast to conspicuous consumption). Michaela DeSoucey and Gary Alan Fine suggested that food growers, producers, and distributors commit themselves to sustainability, fair trade, reliance on local farmers and artisanal, organic, or otherwise non-industrial production in response to our values-driven consumer demand for eco-friendly products, rather than asking the government to regulate standards for these categories (seeing, e.g., what’s happened with “organic.”) However, by concluding that the success of “conscientious production” can only be measured to the extent it pays off commercially, DeSoucey and Fine, in my view, trust too much to the wisdom of the free market, which, as we know, can easily be manipulated by powerful corporate and political interests.
- Blanket condemnation of food additives? – There were very vigorous debates over the blanket condemnation of food additives as detrimental to health, questioning studies, for example, that connected asthma, eczema, and hyperactivity directly to such additives as sodium benzoate, food colorings, or industrial food staple ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup. Some participants seem to feel that if some food additives prove to be unhealthy, one should on principle reject all additives, while others, especially the food scientist Len Fisher, felt that one should carefully distinguish between additives and evaluate each one case by case. Still others wondered whether there was a harmful “cocktail effect” of additives combined with one another, rather than of any single additive by itself.
Not all the papers or discussions of food and morality at the Symposium were so focused on contemporary issues of sustainability and healthy, eco-friendly food. Some were more historically and ethnically oriented, like the papers presented in “the Jewish session.” Travis Berg, himself a farmer, and as a college undergraduate, perhaps the youngest participant at the Symposium, discussed how the Mishnah and medieval kabbalah transformed the Biblical acricultural ethic. I pled a case here for understanding R. Bahya ben Asher’s “Torah of the table” as a sensual morality that embraced pleasure as a powerful incentive to think, speak, act, and eat morally, comparable in certain ways to the gastronomy of Brillat-Savarin,”Babette’s Feast,” and Michael Pollan. And Susan Weingarten showed how Jewish midrashim about Israelite children and miscarried fetuses crushed and baked into bricks under Egyptian oppression may have been distorted by medieval Christians into the blood libel that Jews killed Christian children and ground their entrails and blood into charoset for Passover in her paper “Eating People is Wrong: Cannibalism and Charoset.” (Ughhhh!) I also learned from Susan about a Jewish custom during the limbo period before the eve of Passover starts, when you can eat neither bread nor matzah, of eating sausages (kosher of course!) Do any of you out there or your families do this? Attending this session was David Yudkin, with whom I talked afterwards, and found out he was the co-owner of Hot Lips Pizza, a small chain of restaurants in Portland, OR, dedicated to serving food made from “handcrafted, local, and seasonal ingredients,” and a “Major Sponsor of the Think Local First campaign and a member of the Sustainable Business Network of Portland.”
There were many other fascinating papers, particularly those dealing with various interesting and provocative expressions of food morality in literature, history, and different regions around the globe – something to sate the appetite of any foodie. You can check out the paper abstracts to get an idea of the of the cornucopia of topics that I didn’t mention here. Enough for now. In another post, I’ll have some more general reflections on what I learned, felt, and what it meant to me as a Jewish participant in this great gathering of foodies.