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 Saturday lunch. Robin Weir demonstrated how to make ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Foam poured out of the container off the table and across the floor, thrilling the hall. The nitrogen had been added to sugar, lemon juice and ?1,100’s-worth of Ch?teau Yquem.
I thought it delicious but was slapped down. “You like it? Can you tell the difference between this and Monbazillac?” “I think we should boycott it.” “Because of the French nuclear tests?” “No, because it took centuries to perfect Ch?teau Yquem and about two minutes to think up a recipe that ruins it.”
Sunday lunch brought conflict between the symposium and the supermarket. Tesco adviser Clare Ferguson thought that her employers should meet the food scholars. She persuaded Tesco to donate a fish lunch and a lecture by her colleague Dr Richard Pugh (PhD in radiation), who misjudged his audience. We listened, horrified, to “rah rah Tesco.”
And apparently the Tesco striped bass we enjoyed, flown from California, was not striped bass. I was informed by Fritz Blank, author of The Effect of Salmon Aquiculture on Other Commercial Fish Species in the Bay of Fundy, that it was “a hybrid striped bass and sea perch. The American marine food regulations are very loose.”
There were history lessons, too. Katharzyna Cwiertka, of Leiden University in Holland, spoke on Minekichi Akabori, born 1816, who started a cookery school for ladies in Japan; Andrew Dalby of Cambridge spoke on Alexander the Great as food-route opener; Birgit Siesby of Denmark on Toulouse-Lautrec. Michael Abdalla of Poland spoke in Arabic on Bar Ebraya, born Assyria 1226; Sami Zubaida, an Iraqi, sat beside him to translate. Two papers on Transylvania were delivered by Hungarians.
John Deith, a probation officer, had taken seven years to track down the family of Agnes B Marshall (1855-1905), who followed and improved on Mrs Beeton. (Deith surmises that Ward Lock, publishers of both authors, buried Mrs Marshall’s books to help Mrs Beeton’s reprint.) Enriqueta David Perez (1909-1971) codified Philippine cooking.
The closing session was a time for complaints. “We have achieved the almost impossible feat of not mentioning any of the important names,” said Paul Levy. “Nothing on Elizabeth David, Julia Child, James Beard or Jane Grigson-what other organisation could have done this?” The platform figures remained benign as Buddhas. There were the usual calls to change this or that about the way the symposium is run. Then everyone filed out murmuring “We mustn’t.”
Papers presented at the symposium are available from Tom Jaine, Prospect Books, tel: 01803 712269