Category Archives: Conferences

Oxford Symposium Conference Report

Molly Taylor-Poleskey

The theme of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery for 2017 was “Landscape.” From Friday July 7 to Sunday July 9, 270 chefs, food producers, journalists, scholars, and general foodies gathered to discuss (and taste) the relationship between food and landscape.

Image courtesy of the Oxford Food Symposium.
Image courtesy of the Oxford Food Symposium.

There were many interpretations of what a landscape is and how humans interact with their landscapes to get certain foods. The thread of nostalgia for lost or disappearing food landscapes emerged early in the conference thanks to plenary talks by writers Catherine Brown and Colin Tudge. Brown recounted sharing meals of tender mutton with aging crofters in desolate regions of northern Scotland in the 1970s and thinking that their recipes and ways of cooking would be lost with their generation. The next generation was drawn away from the land to more lucrative and comfortable urban livelihoods. On Saturday, talks about shepherding in the Lake District (James Rebanks) and the food traditions of Catalonia (Claudia Rodin) pursued the theme of urbanization and the decline of family-run farms from the 1970s to today.

Many of these nostalgic views on food landscape were accompanied with hope that a small farm renaissance is on the horizon. Rebanks (himself a shepherd) and Brown pointed to young people who are turning back to the farms that their parents abandoned to earn less money, but live according to their values.

Joshna Maharaj is a young chef working to return whole foods to institutional settings such as hospitals and universities in the urban landscape of Toronto. Maharaj shared ironical, yet revealing, anecdotes about counterproductive hospital dietary regulations that left her arguing that the stem of a strawberry was not a choking hazard and other such battles for bringing truly healing food to sick people.

Revitalization of food landscapes was also tasted throughout the weekend. First, at the Boyne Valley Banquet on Friday night, which was sponsored by the Irish tourist board and presented a cow carcass twelve ways. This meal highlighted Ireland’s “Ancient East,” a region northeast of Dublin that has enjoyed a resurgence thanks to its branding as a gastronomic destination. During this feast, I had the pleasure of being regaled with stories and jokes by the chef’s brother, Ronan, who had driven the meat and other local delicacies from Ireland with his brother. He shared one story about being waved through the immigration checkpoint when he mentioned that his destination was the Oxford Food Symposium, and therefore avoided having to open the doors of a van crammed with raw animal parts.

Ronan’s story brought to mind how political borders influence the mobility of food and made me reflect on how different this drive might be once Brexit takes effect. Brexit was clearly on the minds of other symposiasts as well: Reblack saw that there might be a silver lining in last year’s vote to leave the E.U., as Britons might now take stock of their food policies and enact regulation to support small farmers. Olivia Potts gave a fascinating retrospective on how European Economic Community legislation has affected farming, food pricing, and surpluses. Potts articulated how the E.E.C. legislators responded to outcries from farmers and consumers in adapting and reforming food legislation in the last decades.

The Saturday night dinner poignantly expressed how people could be linked by a shared food landscape even when divided by a political boundary. The meal consisted of food and drinks from the Turkish and Armenian borderlands. Gamze Íneceli screened a short film of the mountainous wine region that included the parts of Armenia and Turkey that supplied our wine for the evening.

While some of the explorations of the theme were poignant, others were more playful, such as the talk about rice paddy art tourism in Japan by Voltaire Chan and the Urban Landscape created for Saturday’s lunch with microgreens growing on the long banqueting tables.

The most startling take on the theme came from Nicola Twilley’s Sunday morning’s plenary in which she introduced the concept of “aerior.” She described her project to harvest the taste of particular atmospheres. Egg foam is reportedly 90% air. This factoid inspired a seemingly light-hearted art piece in which meringues were whipped in a sealed “smog chamber” so that people could literally compare the tastes of the airs of different places. Twilley has been asked by meringue tasters, “is it safe to eat?” To which she responds, “well, is it safe to breathe?”

Although humans are not the only species to shape food landscapes (Joshua Evans brought up the tireless work of microbes), there was an undercurrent at the symposium of our environmental responsibilities as we develop our food cultures. As Colin Tudge emphasized in his talk, “The Nature of the Task,” ever-increasing production is not the goal of enlightened agriculture, rather the goals are kindness and quality.

A Sampling of Food-Related Panels at the 2017 Berkshire Conference

By Rachel A. Snell

Held at Hoftra University June 1-4, the 17th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities contained a number of panels of interest to food studies scholars. As those who study food are well-acquainted, food and food writing offer a richly rewarding lens for studying the past. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the conference theme, “Difficult Conversations: Thinking and Talking About Women, Genders, and Sexualities Inside and Outside the Academy,” generated several papers and on entire panel devoted to exploring the connections between food and gender.

“Native New Yorker,” Pura Cruz 2006.

My own research interests naturally gravitated me toward a handful of food-related panels at this year’s Big Berks, but this is by no means an exhaustive review. The full conference program can be accessed here.

On Thursday afternoon, two papers exploring home economics lead me to a panel titled, “Bloomers, Domestic Violence, and Home Economics: Print Sources and the Politics of Gender” and chaired by Carol Ruth Berkin. While all four papers were excellent, food scholars, particularly those interested in the home economics movement, will want to note the following two papers:

Food, Empowerment, and Iowa: Exploring Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook

Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook (Des Moines: 1884).

Jaycie Vos, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill/Special Collections Coordinator and University Archivist, University of Northern Iowa @jaycie_v

Jaycie Vos’s paper provided a close-reading of Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook (Des Moines: 1884). Written by the head of the Domestic Economy Department at Iowa Agricultural College (later Iowa State University), Mary B. Welch, the cookbook was a compilation of recipes used for instruction in the department. Vos argues the cookbook and Welch’s career presented food preparation as a source of empowerment for women.

The Porosity of Public and Private in Ellen Richards’s Home Economics

Serenity Sutherland, University of Rochester @serenitys37

In her examination of the career of Ellen Richards, the pioneering founder of the Home Economics movement and the first female student and instructor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sutherland contrasted the development of scientific housekeeping with earlier moral domesticity. Her concentration on Richards allowed Sutherland to explore ideas of individuality and the overlap of public and private in the Home Economics movement.

Friday morning’s “Repast and Present: Food History Inside and Outside the Academy” organized by the Recipe Project’s own Amanda Herbert not only explored food as an engagement tool in the study of the past, it was also the opening event for a virtual conference exploring the question, “What is a recipe?” A video of the panel is available on the Recipe Project’s Facebook page, therefore, I will provide brief notes on each speaker.

Public and Professional Dimensions of Creative Food History Programs

Amanda B. Moniz, Smithsonian Institution @AmandaMoniz1 

Moniz discussed her development of historical cooking classes and the accessibility of food history.

Cooking Class: Women, Domestic Science, and Higher Education since the Progressive Era

Tandra Taylor, St. Louis University

Through a focus on Progressive-era domestic science education opportunities for African-American women, Taylor argued that cooking class was actually cooking class (i.e.: status).

A Recipe for Teaching (and Learning) Atlantic World History: Food and the Columbian Exchange

Zara Anishanslin, University of Delaware @ZaraAnishanslin

Anishanslin shared her techniques for bringing food into the classroom, describing this effort as a more uplifting aspect of Atlantic history (creation rather than destruction). Those who teach the early American history survey or Atlantic history courses will be interested in her assignment to select and study a recipe that would not exist without the Columbian Exchange.

Food for the People: How Food History is Changing the Conversation at the National Museum of American History

Paula Johnson, National Museum of American History

Julia Child’s kitchen on display at the Museum of American History –

Johnson discussed food-related initiatives at the National Museum of American History including exhibits and live cooking demonstrations that combine food and history. Mark your calendars for this year’s Smithsonian Food History Weekend, October 26-28.

Cooking on the Internet: Historical Recipes and Public Scholarships

Marissa Nicosia, Pennsylvania State University – Abington College @Nicosia_Marissa 

Nicosia’s joint-project with Alyssa Connell transcribes, contextualizes, and updates early modern recipes for modern kitchens while sharing them on a blog titled, Cooking in the Archives. Nicosia discussed the insights that stemmed from this work and the importance of actually preparing recipes as part of the research process.

My review of food history at the Big Berks concludes with a panel exploring the politics of women’s businesses that included four fascinating and innovative presentations, but it was Maria McGrath’s history of Bloodroot Restaurant that connects with the subject of this post.

Living Feminist: The Liberation and Limits of Separatist Business and Radical Lesbian Ethics at the Bloodroot Restaurant

Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College

Dining Space, Bloodroot Restaurant –

In this paper, McGrath examined the founding of Bloodroot Restaurant in Bridgeport, CT, a feminist and collective restaurant and bookstore, in 1977. She explored the role of food in the pursuit of feminist and counter-cultural ideologies.

As a first-time Big Berks attendee, I was blown away by the quality and variety of presentations and the uniquely supportive atmosphere. I’m looking forward to more food history at the 2020 meeting!

Note: In the interest of self-promotion, I would be remiss to not mention I also presented, during the Digital Humanities Spotlight, on mapping cookbooks to reveal women’s networks. An early version of that work is available here.

Anecdotes and Antidotes

By Alisha Rankin

How did early modern individuals test and try their recipes and cures? This question is at the heart of the special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” in which I participated as both a co-editor and an author. My article, “On Anecdote and Antidotes: Poison Trials in Early Modern Europe,” examines the ways in which early modern practitioners tested a specific kind of cure: antidotes to poison. It contains some information I discussed in earlier posts on this blog – here and here – but adds many details and thoughts about testing in general. Most cures, I argue, tended to be tested in the course of regular clinical experience. A patient got sick; a practitioner tried a particular remedy, observed the results, and frequently shared anecdotes of success or failure. The scale of this kind of testing could be small or large, but in most cases it involved patients who were already sick.

Poison antidotes were a little different, because practitioners could actually create the condition of illness by giving poison to a test subject. In 1563, for example, the royal surgeon to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, Claudius Richardus, wrote a letter describing the marvellous virtues of bezoar stone. As avid Harry Potter readers will know, bezoar was an animal byproduct prized as a poison antidote and cure-all. Richardus recounted a series of marvellously successful tests he had conducted on bezoar at the Emperor’s behest. In two of them, patients received bezoar in the midst of a serious illness – the usual practice. In the other two, bezoar was tested in contrived trials on condemned criminals.[1]

Bezoar stones from the imperial Kunstkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Photo by Alisha Rankin.

This second kind of test – which I call a poison trial – has a long history dating back to antiquity. Many ancient kings, most famously Mithridates VI of Pontos (135-63 BCE), used condemned criminals to test poison antidotes, from which he developed his famous antidote and cure-all, mithridatium. The Greco-Roman physician Galen reportedly tested theriac, a derivative of mithridatium, on roosters, and versions of this test appeared in the writings of several Arabic physicians, including Avicenna’s highly influential Canon of Medicine.[2] Medieval physicians repeated the description of Galen’s test as well. However, poison trials tended to be described as theoretical tests that one could conduct rather than as anecdotes about tests that had actually taken place, and they were mainly suggested as a means to test whether a batch of theriac was inferior, fraudulent, or old – not whether theriac actually worked. From the time of Galen, moreover, poison trials were conducted exclusively on animals, not humans. The dominant argument for the efficacy of these drugs remained anecdotal reports of their use on sick patients.

In the Renaissance, poison trials expanded significantly, as did their role in medical communication. From the 1520s, powerful rulers began to revive the gruesome tradition of using condemned criminals to test a variety of poison antidotes – not just theriac. In addition, these tests were reported and circulated as anecdotes rather than being described as theoretical suggestions. The first known example comes from Rome in August 1524, when Pope Clement VII directed his medical personnel to test an antidote oil created by the surgeon Gregorio Caravita. He granted the medics two Corsican criminals who had been condemned to death by beheading. Both prisoners were given a strong dose of the deadly herb wolfsbane (aconitum napellus). Caravita then anointed one prisoner with the oil. The other, a “savage spirit,” was given no antidote. The first man survived; the other died in much agony.

Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.

A second successful test was conducted on a Mantuan prisoner given arsenic. Soon thereafter, the medical personnel published a public service pamphlet describing these trials in detail.[3]

A shorter version of this anecdote also appeared in the famous herbal published by Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli in 1544 (with a Latin version in 1554). Mattioli’s influence helped spread poison trials around Europe. From 1561-67, a number of contrived trials on condemned criminals took place under powerful princes, including Emperor Ferdinand I, King Charles IX of France, and Duke Cosimo II de’Medici. Significantly, royal physicians and surgeons spearheaded these poison trials, and they communicated the results in anecdotes that appeared both in private documents and printed books. Claudius Richardus’s bezoar trials were part of a series of such events.

These anecdotes demonstrated careful thought in how the trials were devised and conducted. They described the trials in in excruciating detail, including the number of times a prisoner had vomited and defecated as well as the hour at which these events had occurred. In some cases, physicians attempted to created conditions that would lead to a useful outcome. Richardus’s letter described how food was withheld from a prisoner before the test, “so that one could be more certain of the trial.” This step came in response to a previous case in which the physicians had trouble getting the poison to work. Finally, physicians took care in reporting and circulating their reports about the trials, clearly imbuing them with significance. A series of poison trials on dogs conducted in 1580 by a German prince circulated in both manuscript and print as a detailed Observatio, a report intended to be shared.

Poison trials represented only a miniscule part of drug testing in early modern Europe. Indeed, anecdotes about drugs used successfully on sick people helped drive the interest in new drugs from around the globe, as described in this post by R.A. Kashanipour. Nevertheless, the anecdotes about antidotes demonstrated significant developments in both testing practices and medical communication. To find out more, read my article!


[1] Richardus’s letter, to Archbishop Nicholas Olahus, was later published in Latin and German. Thomas Jordan, Pestis phaenomena (Frankfurt, 1576), 621–630; Johann Wittich, Bericht von der wunderbaren bezoardischen Steinen (Leipzig, 1592), 21.

[2] Galen’s poison trial appeared in the treatise On Theriac to Piso, which may be spurious. However, scholars in the Islamic world and Europe assumed it was authentic. See Robert Leigh, On Theriac to Piso, Attributed to Galen: A Critical Edition with Translation and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

[3] The pamphlet was signed by the physician Paolo Giovio, the apothecary Tomasso Bigliotti, and the senator Pietro Borghese. Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524).

Testing Drugs and Trying Cures

By Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin

Miniature (no. 37.181) from 15th century manuscript in Dresden: Galen, and assistant with a pestle and mortar, and a scribe in an apothecary’s shop. © Wellcome Images

As readers of this blog well know, early modern Europe was aflood with recipes and drugs. One central question has long preoccupied many of us –  just how did our historical actors assess, test and try out recipes, drugs and materia medica? A few summers ago, a group of historians of science and medicine gathered to discuss just this question. This month, we present our ideas and findings in a special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. To celebrate the launch of the special issue, several authors of the volume will share their work on The Recipes Project. Tuesday’s post revisited Ashley Buchanan and Tillmann Taape‘s report on the original 2014 conference. Over the next few weeks, we’ll learn more about the research of Erik Heinrichs, Valentina Pugliano, Alisha Rankin and Justin Rivest. Finally, Tillmann Taape, who just completed his PhD at the University Cambridge (congrats!) also adds his voice to the series by reflecting on how theme of drug testing features in his doctoral dissertation.

To get us started on our month of ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’, we wanted to say a few words as the organizers and editors of the project. First, you might ask, what do we mean by ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’? Over the course of the project, we found that it was useful to view ‘testing drugs’ and ‘trying cures’ as two overlapping but distinct phenomena.

As the essays in the special issue show, physicians and apothecaries developed clear rules and practices for testing drugs as materials – from sensory analysis of materia medica to chemical analysis of substances like mineral waters or alchemical medicines. This kind of ‘testing drugs’ largely focused on gaining knowledge on the substances’ medicinal properties and played a particularly significant role in the discovery and adoption of materia medica from the New World and in assessing and establishing authenticity of exotic and/or expensive medicaments.

Paolo Antonio Barbieri, The Spice Shop, 1637. Image from Wikimedia.

‘Trying cures’, on the other hand, describes the widespread practice of trying remedies and other kinds of cures on human bodies. If ‘testing drugs’ was mainly conducted by learned physicians and apothecaries, ‘trying cures’ was performed by a broad range of healers. Within the home, women and men applied and observed the effects of remedies on family and household members. Likewise, physicians and other practitioners prescribed diets, medicines and other cures to their patients, again observing and recording the effects. Ample evidence of this kind of ‘trying cures’ survive in a range historical sources from the use of ‘probatum est’ to expressions of personal experience, customisation and rejection of recipes in household recipe collections (for more on this, see posts here and here).

For us, these two categories ‘testing drugs and ‘trying cures’ serve as helpful heuristic tools to untangle the assessment practices used by early modern practitioners. We see the two categories not as separate boxes but rather as overlapping and often intertwined practices. Many healers merged testing and trying by using patient tests to determine a substance’s properties or to refine methodologies in both drug production and application. These themes of testing and trying occupied a central place in the making of medical knowledge across a vast chronological span and broad geographical regions and social contexts. The essays in the special issue examine these crucial knowledge practices in Europe c. 1300-1800 (go here for a table of contents).

Several main themes emerged from this collaborative project. First, medicine was always an experiential art and the essays in the special issue demonstrate clear continuities between the learned physicians’ uses of experience/experiment in the Middle Ages and early modern experimental interests. Learned medicine made deliberate use of experience from a very early date and pharmacy was an area where the gathering of experiential knowledge was particularly pronounced. The senses – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing – played vital roles in determining the properties of drugs and their effects on the human body.

Concurrently, as many essays in the volume demonstrate, structured drug testing had a long history. Medieval physicians developed meticulous rules for drug testing, as Michael McVaugh’s essay shows, although they left no record of actual medical trials. This focus on establishing protocols for drug testing continues throughout the medieval and early modern period, with significant expansion in scale and scope. By the eighteenth century, the testing of mineral spa waters (in Michael Bycroft’s essay) or proprietary drugs (in Justin Rivest’s essay) became large-scale undertakings situated in learned academies and hospitals.

When taken together, the essays in the ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’ special issue collectively argue that ‘experimental thinking’ played a crucial role in learned assessments of medicine and drugs throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period. From the time of Galen, drug testing was structured and evidence-based with an aim to produce transferable results. For us, this fascinating and multifaceted story of premodern drug testing enriches and extends current histories of experimentation and we hope that our explorations into topic will inspire others to join us too!

Further Reading and Acknowledgements:

This post is a very condensed version of Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin’s ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures: Experiment and Medicine in Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 91 (2017), 157-182. The full version of the article is available here. The entire special issue is available here.

The ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’ project was funded by the Max Planck Society as part of the Minerva Research Group’s ‘Reading and Writing Nature in Early Modern Europe’.  We also extend our grateful thanks to all the participants of the 2014 workshop, the editors of the BHM and the anonymous reviewers of the articles in this special issue.