Not everyone knows that there is a food intelligentsia. And even some who would count themselves among it are unaware of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. It takes place every year in September at St Antony’s College. Foodie scholars attend, but this is still a secret society after 16 years. None of the flamboyant critics come: no Craig Brown, Jonathan Meades or AA Gill. Food plus scholarship equals obsession, not narcissism. The media has never been interested.
They come from 16 other countries besides Britain. Conversation is curious. “Do you still get the food insects newsletter?” “Yes.” “I have eaten cockroaches in every country in the far east and they are all palatable except in South Korea.”
The joint chairman of the symposium, Dr Theodore Zeldin, has just been elected to the British Academy-to the great joy of the “symposiasts,” as they grandly label themselves. (They see this as a tribute to food scholarship. Now they are looking forward to an Oxford Chair of Gastronomy.)
Zeldin’s co-chairman is Alan Davidson. He is a gaudy dresser but this year wore a white T-shirt printed with the cover of the 50th issue of his food mag, Petits propos culinaires. He has the usual bits of dirty string round both his wrists from the Lao New Year ceremony. (He was British ambassdor to Laos from 1973-75.)
This is an academic conference. There were 48 papers on the theme of “Cooks and others who have influenced what we eat.” We started with a discussion on nouvelle cuisine. Henri Gault was scheduled-his Guide Gault-Millau had announced the new style in October 1973-but failed to turn up, so his paper’s subheading, The homosexual cuisine of Beauchamp Place in London: involuntary source in the 1960s of nouvelle cuisine was left undeveloped. Nonetheless, it was decided that nouvelle cuisine’s individual “plating” in place of group plattering was an important change in restaurant practice.
A loyal attender, Sophie Coe, died last year. Professor Michael Coe, her husband, has given a ?1,000 prize in her memory for a short piece on food history. It was jointly won by two 1994 symposium papers-Ove Fossaa’s A whale of a dish: whalemeat as food and Regina Sexton’s I’d ate it like chocolate: the disappearing offal food traditions of Cork city. Alas, The waning of sexually allusive monastic confectionery in southern Italy failed to make the grade.
The symposium regulars provided…