Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery

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Harlan Walker speaking on "Eggs in Cookery", the 2006 theme. Panellists, seated, left to right: Jane Levi, Paul Levy, Marina Warner, Claudia Roden.

The Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery is an annual weekend conference at which academics, food writers, cooks, and anyone with an interest in food and culture meet to discuss current issues in food studies and food history.

Overview[edit]

The Symposium is currently[when?] held at St Catherine's College, Oxford. It has taken place every year since 1983, with the proceedings published in an annual volume about a year later. The Oxford Symposium has been a Charitable Trust since January 2003. Influential in its field,[1] the Oxford Symposium is the oldest such annual meeting in the world,[2] though a series of scientific conferences on the anthropology and ethnology of food began in the 1970s.[3]

The 2012 meeting was held at St Catherine's College on 6–8 July. The topic was "Wrapped and Stuffed" foods.[4] The Oxford Symposium is a registered charity in Britain, with a group of distinguished Trustees, and there is a support group called Friends of the Oxford Symposium.[5]

"Science and Cookery": the 1979 seminars[edit]

The origin of the Symposium is traced to a series of three historical seminars on science and cookery arranged in 1979 by the scholar and former diplomat Alan Davidson (who was Alistair Horne Research Fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford for 1978/79) and sponsored by Theodore Zeldin, historian of France and a fellow of St Antony's.[6] About twenty people attended each seminar.[7] Participants in the first gathering included Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Jane Grigson and Paul Levy. The title of the first seminar, on 4 May 1979, was that of Davidson's fellowship, "Food and Cookery: the Impact of Science in the Kitchen". Academic disciplines represented ranged from the history of medicine to mathematics and French literature; Nicholas Kurti, Professor Emeritus of Physics at Oxford, was among them, and some of the 21 participants were not academics at all. They included Elizabeth David, David's publisher Jill Norman, Anne Willan, Paul Levy and Richard Olney.

Friedrich Accum's Culinary Chemistry (1821), subject of the seminar on 11 May 1979.

The second seminar, a week later, focused on 19th century research on food chemistry, notably Friedrich Accum's Culinary Chemistry (1821) and the writings of Justus Liebig. The third meeting became a general discussion of cookery books in their historical context. On this occasion Elizabeth David enunciated the rule-of-thumb that it takes a generation (a minimum of 25 years) for a newly devised dish to pass from the kitchen to the written record. Claudia Roden joined the group on 11 May; by 18 May participants included Jane Grigson, Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, Sri Owen and the Dutch food writers Berthe Meijer and Titia Bodon.[8][9]

"Cookery Books": the 1980 symposium[edit]

The next event in the series was a one-day meeting at St Antony's College in May 1980, chaired by Davidson and Zeldin. Participants, numbering nearly seventy, included many from overseas. The topic, the history of cookery books, had been prefigured in a brief article by Davidson, published in the first issue of the food history journal, Petits Propos Culinaires, in 1979.[10] Speakers included Kai Brodersen, then at St John's College, Oxford, on cookery writing in Europe before the era of the printed book, and Claudia Roden on Islamic cookery manuscripts. The event was "best described as a symposium, since one attractive feature of it was that everyone brought food they had prepared themselves".[7] Culinary contributions by Sonia Blech and Josephine Bacon were noted; Nicholas Kurti served Bombe Allotropique (Graphite-Diamant), a dish he had invented 25 years earlier at the annual Diamond Conference to celebrate the production of artificial diamonds at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady.[11] The proceedings were not published in volume form, but one paper appeared in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 5 and three more in no. 6.[12][13]

"National and Regional Styles of Cookery": the 1981 symposium[edit]

The first full symposium, announced in October 1980,[7] took place over two days in September 1981. There were nearly 150 participants, including 12 from the United States and seven from France: the latter included Jean-Louis Flandrin and Françoise Sabban. The majority were food writers, academics in food studies, publishers and journalists; there were few chefs. Plenary sessions took place on the first day, and papers had been circulated in advance. Participants split into three groups for the sessions on the second day, which were then summarized by rapporteurs in a final plenary.[14] Maria Johnson, speaking on "North Balkan Food Past and Present", showed photographs of two models found in archaeological excavations in Bulgaria and claimed to be as much as 7,000 years old, one of a bread oven and one of a loaf decorated with impressions of acorns.[15] The archaeologist Helen M. Leach spoke on "Cooking Without Pots" in prehistoric and traditional Polynesian cuisine; Raymond Sokolov, American cookery writer, discussed Southern cooking, describing it as "the major surviving native cuisine in the USA" and defending the popularity of deep frying, "an ideal method for the restaurateur". Speakers in Near Eastern cuisines included Charles Perry, editor on the Los Angeles Times, who discussed "Three Medieval Arabic Cook Books". R. E. F. Smith, professor of Russian at Birmingham, was one of two speakers on the history of Russian food. There was a session in which symposiasts attempted, but failed, to devise a test for distinguishing bogus from authentic regional styles of cookery,[16] a question that was to be taken up again in the 2005 symposium, Authenticity in the Kitchen.[17] The 1981 proceedings were published in volume form, the first occasion on which this was done.[18]

Harold McGee tastes surstromming (Swedish fermented herring) during the 2010 symposium, Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods.

Annual symposia of the 1980s[edit]

The 1983 symposium, described by one participant as "solemn but light-hearted",[19] had the catch-title Food In Motion. The theme was the migration of foodstuffs and cookery techniques, including the most significant single such migration event in history, recently studied in Alfred W. Crosby's The Columbian Exchange (1972). Other major topics included the historical significance of the potato in Ireland, discussed by the social historian Jillian Strang and the food writer Joyce Toomre. There was a discussion by Raymond Sokolov and others of the origins of nouvelle cuisine (in and around 1972) and cuisine minceur, the approach championed by Michel Guérard. Sokolov allocated the principal role in these innovations to Paul Bocuse, Fernand Point, Guérard's book La Cuisine gourmande and the work of the Troisgros brothers; he pointed out the close relationship between Japanese culinary tradition and nouvelle cuisine.[20] At this 1983 symposium it was agreed that the event should repeat annually.

There is no published volume of proceedings corresponding to the 1984 symposium, which took as its theme "the ideal cookery book and recipe". Many contributions consisted of recipes "with comments upon their composition and their culinary possibilities", a form unsuited to reprinting in the usual volume format; some of the others were published elsewhere.[21] Fourteen remaining papers appeared in a two-year volume, alongside the 1985 symposium proceedings, under the section title "Cookery Books and the Transmission of Recipes".[22] The 1985 proceedings have the section title "Foodways, Science & Lore in the Kitchen", though the original symposium title was "Science, Tradition and Superstition in the Kitchen". Organised by Tom Jaine, restaurateur and restaurant critic, it was the largest symposium so far, with 150 delegates from Britain, many European countries, Australia and the United States. Among them it was possible to identify "six cooks/hoteliers, thirty-one journalists/writers, thirteen publishers/editors, nine historians, seven booksellers ... and twenty-three academics". The archaeologist Bruce Kraig traced the history of cynophagy in the prehistoric record and in anthropological reports. Aphrodisiacs were discussed by food writers and medical specialists, and at least one traditional aphrodisiac, Chinese three penis wine, was available for tasting. Unusual foods at the regular bring-your-own lunch included gravad lax and chocolate-covered garlic.[23] The keynote talk was "Science and the Study of Food" by Harold McGee, whose On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen had been published in 1984. Anthropologists Gerald and Valerie Mars offered a classification of food scholars and enthusiasts on the grid/group scales developed by Mary Douglas. Their title was "Classifying Cuisines: Epicures, Isolates, Messmates and Cultists".[24]

By this time the Oxford Symposium claimed imitators elsewhere in the world: there had been four recent conferences under the aegis of the American Institute of Wine & Food, while other series of symposia were under way in Australia, Turkey and New England (the latter hosted by the Culinary Historians of Boston).[25]

Since 1986 the proceedings have been unvaryingly published in an annual volume (see "List of published symposia" below).[26] The 1986 theme was The Cooking Medium, and three data papers were circulated in advance: two by Alan Davidson, "Edible Fats and Oils" and "Thickeners", and a multilingual survey by Jenny Macarthur, "Oils, Fats and Dairy Products: notes and lists of names". Many less-than-universal cooking media were discussed, including sheep's tail fat (by Jill Tilsley Benham), caul fat (by Jane Grigson) and almond milk (by the medieval scholar Constance B. Hieatt). Sami Zubaida of Birkbeck College spoke on "Oils and Fats in the Middle East", while Barbara Santich gave a historical outline of medieval thickeners.[27] Among the more unusual tastes explored in the 1987 symposium on Taste was pekmez (in a paper by Nevin Halici). Esther Balogh spoke on paprika, Bruce Kraig on hot dogs and Joan Morgan on apples, soon to be the subject of her definitive The Book of Apples (1993). Historical papers were given by Anna del Conte on 18th century Naples and Charles Perry on Near Eastern rotted condiments (including Murri).[28] The Cooking Pot as the theme for 1988 was suggested by Patience Gray.[29] It was addressed by 25 speakers including, for the first time, Sophie D. Coe, who spoke on "The Maya Chocolate Pot and Its Descendants". Others who addressed the symposium for the first time included Michael Abdalla, a scholar of the modern Assyrians of the Near East (and an Assyrian himself), the anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy, the medievalist Terence Scully and the Greek food writer Rena Salaman.[30] At the 1989 symposium, which took the theme of Staple Foods and was for the first time organized by Harlan Walker, plenary sessions were addressed by the archaeologist Keith Botsford, the food historian Andrew Dalby and the nutritionist Erica F. Wheeler, who asked: "Do Processed Societies Have Staple Foods?"[31]

Symposia of the 1990s[edit]

From 1990 onwards conferences were held in September of each year. The theme for 1990 was Fasts and Feasts,[32] and plenary sessions were addressed by Astri Riddervold, Bjorn Fjellheim and Marit Ekne Ruud. Historian Phyllis Pray Bober spoke on "The Black or Hell Banquet", a kind of jeu d'esprit arranged by the emperor Domitian, by Grimod de La Reynière and others through history.[33] Robert Chenciner argued that the barbecue depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry proved that the tapestry was not an 11th-century artefact: the argument rested on "not entirely firm grounds" according to Paul Levy.[34] At the 1991 symposium, on the theme of Public Eating, the plenary paper, "Utility and Symbol in Public Eating", was given by Sami Zubaida. Richard Hosking spoke on "Pavement Food, Packed Meals and Picnics in Japan", Doreen Fernandez on "Balut to Barbecue: Philippine Street Food", Robert A. Leonard on "Food, Drink and Swahili Public Space", Barbara Wheaton on "Expositions universelles" and Sharon Hudgins on "The Beer Taverns of Prague".[35] The published volume of the 1992 symposium is entitled Spicing Up the Palate. Aromatics that were discussed included silphium (Alice Arndt), rosewater (Helen Saberi), chocolate (Sophie Coe and Alice Wooledge Salmon), mastic (Rena Salaman and Nevin Halici) and annatto (Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz). Margaret Visser spoke on moretum, likening it to "ancient Roman pesto", while Loret Lee discussed flavour water or lu sui, a flavouring prominent in Chinese cuisine.[36] Look and Feel was the subject of the 1993 symposium.[37]

The 1994 theme was Going Today: Gone Tomorrow? Endangered Foods and Dishes.[38] Fat-tailed sheep recurred in Charles Perry's paper; June di Schino discussed and offered samples of the monastic confectionery of southern Italy, including (from the monastery of Santa Maria dell'Itria in Sciacca, Sicily) honey cookies made in the shape of a woman with three breasts. Gastronomic events at the 1994 symposium included the most authentic Mexican meal yet seen in Britain, featuring huitlacoche and amaranth greens flown in from Mexico. This feast was organized by Bruce Kraig and prepared by Dudley Nieto. Plenary sessions were addressed by Jeremy Cherfas of the Henry Doubleday Research Association on "Vanishing Vegetable Varieties -- and How to Save Them" and by Camellia Panjabi of Taj Hotels on "The Non-Emergence of the Regional Foods of India", the Punjabification of Indian food and the universality of tandoori chicken. The Australian food journalist Cherry Ripe had proposed the theme and gave the keynote address. Titled "Dying of Starvation in the Supermarket", her talk surveyed the problem of diminishing bio-diversity in domesticated animals and plants. As participants noted, "the continued existence of many breeds ... depends on their being eaten by man"; therefore "it could be (and was) argued that vegetarianism is immoral".[39]

The 1995 symposium, on the theme of Cooks and Other People, was the last to feature a Saturday do-it-yourself lunch to which symposiasts brought unusual foods from all over the world: organizers concluded this was "no longer possible with the present rules of hygiene". This lunch ended with two spectacular dessert, instant ice cream (Peter Barham poured liquid nitrogen into a bowl of crême anglaise) and sorbet: Robin Weir used Château d'Yquem, the premier cru supérieur Sauternes, as the basis for this costly delicacy.[40] Gillian Riley spoke on "Platina, Martino and Their Circle"; cooks under discussion ranged from Mithaecus to Dorothy Hartley and from Nikolaos Tselementes to Martha Stewart, while "other people" who had influenced cuisine included Alexander the Great, John Calvin and Nils Gustav Dalén (Nobel laureate and inventor of the Aga).[41] The 1996 theme was Food on the Move. The title of Philip Iddison's paper was "Arabian Travellers' Observations on Bedouin Food"; Claudia Roden's was "Food in the Sephardi diaspora". Helen M. Leach traced the history of the pavlova, Layinka Swinburne the use of ship's biscuit and portable soup, and Colin Spencer the spread of the rocambole. Fritz Blank spoke on "Travelers' Diarrhea: the Science of Montezuma's Revenge".[42]

Symposia after 2000[edit]

Throughout the 1990s the symposia continued to be hosted at St Antony's College. In 2004 they moved to Oxford Brookes University; most recently the venue has been St Catherine's College. Frequent speakers not already mentioned include the American writer Jeffrey Steingarten. Many topics have had their first airing at the Oxford Symposium, including the expression "molecular gastronomy."

List of published symposia[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ P. D. Smith in The Guardian (12 August 2011)
  2. ^ 2003 Proceedings at amazon.com
  3. ^ [Alan Davidson], "Other Meetings and Conferences" in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 9 (October 1981) pp. 53-55
  4. ^ Announcement of the 2012 Symposium
  5. ^ Friends of The Oxford Symposium
  6. ^ Paul Levy, Out To Lunch (London, 1986) p. 31
  7. ^ a b c "An Oxford Symposium" in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 6 (October 1980) p. 8
  8. ^ "History of the Oxford Symposium"
  9. ^ Paul Levy, Out To Lunch (London, 1986) pp. 30-32, 37
  10. ^ Alan Davidson, "Possible Future Bibliographies of Cookery Books" in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 1 (1979) pp. 68-69
  11. ^ Paul Levy, Out To Lunch (London, 1986) pp. 30-32
  12. ^ Lynette Hunter, "Cookery Books: a cabinet of rare devices and conceits" in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 5 (May 1980) pp. 19-34
  13. ^ Claudia Roden, "Early Arab Cooking and Cookery Manuscripts"; Uta Schumacher-Voelker, "German Cookery Books, 1485-1800"; David Adlard, "The Role of Cookery Books in a Professional Kitchen", in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 6 (October 1980)
  14. ^ Alan Davidson, "Oxford Symposium 1981" in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 9 (October 1981) p. 52
  15. ^ See also Maria Johnson, The Eneolithic Bread Oven and Loaf of Bread" in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 9 (October 1981) pp. 49-51
  16. ^ Paul Levy, Out To Lunch (London, 1986) pp. 32-34
  17. ^ Authenticity in the Kitchen (Richard Hosking, ed.) Prospect Books, 2006. ISBN 1903018471
  18. ^ Oxford Symposium, 1981: National & Regional Styles of Cookery. Proceedings (Alan Davidson, ed.) Prospect Books, 1981. ISBN 0907325076
  19. ^ Paul Levy, Out To Lunch (1986) p. 34
  20. ^ Paul Levy, Out To Lunch (1986) pp. 35-36
  21. ^ Quotations from Cookery: Science, Lore & Books (Tom Jaine, ed.; London: Prospect Books, 1986. ISBN 0 907325 33 5) p. v
  22. ^ Cookery: Science, Lore & Books (Tom Jaine, ed.; London: Prospect Books, 1986. ISBN 0 907325 33 5) pp. 2-72
  23. ^ Paul Levy, Out To Lunch (1986) pp. 36-40
  24. ^ Cookery: Science, Lore & Books (Tom Jaine, ed.; London: Prospect Books, 1986. ISBN 0 907325 33 5) pp. 73-187
  25. ^ Paul Levy, Out To Lunch (1986) p. 37
  26. ^ Russell Harris, "Index to the Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1981-1998: Introduction"
  27. ^ The Cooking Medium (Tom Jaine, ed. Prospect Books, 1987) ISBN 090732536X
  28. ^ Taste (Tom Jaine, ed. Prospect Books, 1988. ISBN 0907325394)
  29. ^ "Oxford Symposium 1988" in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 27 (October 1987) p. 54
  30. ^ The Cooking Pot (Tom Jaine, ed. Prospect Books, 1989. ISBN 0907325394)
  31. ^ Staple Foods (Harlan Walker, ed. Prospect Books, 1990. ISBN 0907325440) pp. 1-26
  32. ^ "Oxford Symposium 1990" in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 33 (November 1989) p. 58
  33. ^ Feasting and Fasting (Harlan Walker, ed.) Prospect Books, 1991. ISBN 0907325467
  34. ^ Paul Levy in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 48 (November 1994) p. 9
  35. ^ Public Eating (Harlan Walker, ed.) Prospect Books, 1992. ISBN 0907325475
  36. ^ Spicing Up the Palate: studies of flavourings, ancient and modern (Harlan Walker, ed.) Prospect Books, 1993. ISBN 0907325505
  37. ^ Look & Feel (Harlan Walker, ed.) Prospect Books, 1994. ISBN 0907325564
  38. ^ "Oxford Symposium 1994" in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 45 (November 1993) p. 60
  39. ^ Paul Levy, "Foodie Confab" in Wall Street Journal (September 1994); reprinted as "The Oxford Symposium 1994" in Petits Propos Culinaires no. 48 (November 1994) pp. 7-9
  40. ^ Cooks & Other People (Totnes, 1996) p. 7
  41. ^ Cooks & Other People (Harlan Walker, ed.) Totnes: Prospect Books, 1996. ISBN 0907325726
  42. ^ Food on the Move (Harlan Walker, ed.) Prospect Books, 1997. ISBN 0907325793
  43. ^ Nicholas Wroe, "Milking it with the creme de la creme" in The Guardian (4 September 1999)
  44. ^ Review by Ruth Fairchild in British Food Journal vol. 107 no. 3 (2005) p. 187
  45. ^ Amazon.com
  46. ^ Nicholas Wroe, "A handsome feast" in The Guardian (10 September 2005)
  47. ^ Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire, "Food and Morality: To Eat or Not to Eat?" in Hotel and Catering Review vol. 40 no. 11 pp. 44-45
  48. ^ Paul Levy, "Can foie gras be produced ethically??" in The Guardian: Word of Mouth (28 June 2007)
  49. ^ Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, "Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery I", "II"
  50. ^ Conference reports by Rhona McAdam (September 2007)
  51. ^ Bee Wilson, "Scholars talk about food" in The Financial Times (17 January 2009) [Site requires registration]
  52. ^ Paul Levy, "Cherwell scholarship" in The Guardian: Word of Mouth (11 February 2008)
  53. ^ Prospect Books
  54. ^ Aglaia Kremezi, "Oxford's Intellectual Feast" in Atlantic (17 September 2009)
  55. ^ Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire, "The Language of Food: A Review of the 2009 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery" in Journal of Culinary Science and Technology vol. 7 no. 2-3 (2009) pp. 211-217
  56. ^ Kathryn McGowan, "Reflections on Food and Language: The Oxford Symposium, 2009" in Comestibles (9 November 2009)
  57. ^ Prospect Books
  58. ^ Review by P. D. Smith in The Guardian (12 August 2011)
  59. ^ Review in Reference & Research Book News (1 October 2011) [paysite]
  60. ^ Deirdre McQuillan, "Food on plate puts Ireland on map at Oxford symposium" in The Irish Times (12 July 2010) [paysite]
  61. ^ Raymond Blanc, "Young Chef Scholarship at the Oxford Symposium" at caterersearch.com: "Raymond Blanc: Le Blog"
  62. ^ Kathryn McGowan, "Highlights from Oxford 2010: part 1" and "part 2" in Comestibles (July–August 2010)
  63. ^ Peter Smith, "How a Ship Full of Fish Helped Recreate an Ancient Fish Sauce" in Food & Think at smithsonian.com (1 March 2012)
  64. ^ Prospect Books
  65. ^ Sharon Hudgins, "Oxford Symposium celebrates its 30th anniversary" at Sally's Place (sallybernstein.com)
  66. ^ Aglaia Kremezi, "Celebrating in Oxford" (2011)
  67. ^ Georgia Levy, "Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery" in Jamie Magazine (15 July 2011)
  68. ^ Silvana de Soissons, "Lunch with Elisabeth Luard" in The Foodie Bugle (15 July 2011)
  69. ^ 2011 volume at Prospect Books
  70. ^ Brief report of the 2011 Symposium

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]