Why develop wings if you have nowhere to fly, think about swimming if there is no water? Just as every species is closely linked to a certain environment that informs and nurtures it, we human beings either thrive in propitious conditions, unfold in spite of unfavorable ones or are stimulated by unforeseen triggers that can reach from mere interest to intense support. Before this becomes too commonplace: what I’d like to talk about is the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, the annual food history conference that since the 1980s links kitchen to library, quirky to academically serious.
Ever since I first went to Oxford in September 2003 and the American scholar Barbara Ketcham Wheaton greeted me with the words “I’m soo looking forward to your presentation” this has been my intellectual home, in a way I doubt (but I’m not speaking from experience here) an alma mater could ever be. It was unusually hot that fall in England, I was excited, but also extremely nervous. This was my first time at a conference of that kind, my background was not academic at all, and they had. Accepted. My. Paper.
The first step in my action plan to get through this and stay halfway sane had been to buy myself a new skirt, a pleated short but not too short black Armani number, as a kind of armor. Appropriately the 2003 topic was “Nurture”, and my paper was about children’s cookery books. Back then I had no idea if it was a good paper or if I would be able to present it well. Today I know that it was and that I did (we still used slides then!). St Antony’s College, from which the symposium would soon move on (today it calls St Catherine’s College a very happy home), has strangely faded from my memory except for some greenery, red brick buildings, and rather abominable food that nicely sat with any kind of prejudice you ever might have come across regarding English cooking (the themed dinner in pink and white did nothing to improve that state of affairs, I’m afraid). Wine had to be purchased from the college, and I can still feel the outrage rising in me due to the inflated prices for the mediocre quality.
A food symposium where one did not eat and drink well… Part of this was of course due to the old academic bias against fleeting wordily pleasures, another part to founder Alan Davidson’s teetotalness (and his correct assumption that to establish food and cooking in this very closed academic world one had to first overfulfill the theoretical side; I’ve had people telling me how upset they felt when he wanted to know everything about a certain cheese, for instance, but wasn’t interested a bit in its taste – we’ve come a long way). I think I decided there and then, in my inherent bossy greediness, that we (yes, I was very quickly thinking “we”) could and would drink better. The following year I organized a Riesling from the St Antony estate in Rheinhessen to be served at a lunch in honor of Alan Davidson’s Erasmus Prize (I have to say I was by no means the only one to chase wine sponsors).
Looking back, I’m still amazed and ever so grateful for the serendipity that brought me to Oxford. In fact, it was Harlan Walker, long time (and late) editor of the symposium, who had added a registration form to a paper I had requested from him. “You might be interested to attend….” What made and still makes the Oxford Food Symposium so special is its inclusiveness, a quality I believe ever more in the older I get. No matter what your background, your affiliation, your qualification – as long as your interest in food and everything linked to it is serious, you can register and we welcome you – be you chef, scribbler, scientist, housewife, amateur, entrepreneur or undertaker, from whatever corner of the world.
Our intellectual expectations are high, but we don’t cling to rigidly limited and defined ways to meet them – the opposite, we appreciate quirkiness, fun and happiness. Well, I’m rambling. Let me rather tell you that since Barbara Wheaton’s first welcoming smile (that’s why I’m telling session chairs to look like mother hens after “their” presenters) the symposium came to be one of the highlights of my year. Symposiasts (who obviously vary each year around a repeaters’ nucleus) form a network of like-minded souls that are far more than colleagues because there is no competition involved. For a food writer like me it is heaven that for a whole weekend nobody would say something like “What? You write about food and make a living of that?” Yes, I do, and I can, due to this biotope that nurtures me.
Oh – you might want to know more about facts and practicalities, about our truly gorgeous meals (and wine). You might even want to register for next year. You’ll find all this here. I’m very much looking forward to your presentation.