Bee Wilson on what to expect from this year's Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, an annual culinary conference
Words: Bee Wilson
Images: Joseph Fox
One July morning last year, a humorous 84-year old woman stepped on stage in Oxford to talk about her life’s work. For 50 years, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton has—more or less single handedly—been constructing a database of every cookbook ever published up until 1900.
Wheaton did not even have a computer when she started, writing information on notched McBee cards and searching for data by pushing knitting needles through holes. The database now includes more than 120,000 gems from more than 3,400 historic food books, covering everything from apple pie recipes, to remedies for toothache.
Wheaton is the sort of remarkable person you might meet if you come to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, a weekend devoted to every aspect of food. Barbara’s talk was one of last year’s highlights, creating that magical feeling of a whole room abuzz.
I’ve been coming to this gathering for 17 years, and am now its chair. I sometimes find it hard to describe its particular riches. Is it an extended banquet? A culinary conference? Or a congenial get-together for food-minded eccentrics? Yes, yes and yes.
When it was started in 1979 by food writer and fish expert Alan Davidson, it was just 20 people sitting round an Oxford table talking about “science in the kitchen”. One of those people happened to be Elizabeth David, soon joined by Jane Grigson, Elisabeth Luard and Claudia Roden (who, at the age of 80, remains our beloved president).
Paul Levy, who was chair before me, says what makes it special is its “longevity”. Regulars—who range from chefs, historians and food writers to scholars, to people who just enjoy food—travel from all over the world to be there. Each year we welcome new voices, including young chefs and students.
Japanese slurping etiquette
The 220 attendees share papers about subjects never covered in the mainstream food media. Last year, when the theme was ‘food and communication’, we heard about Japanese slurping etiquette, chef’s tattoos and why the Danes don’t eat five-a-day. Filmmaker Anne Georget shared her film about the poignant food dreams of prisoners of war and cookery writer Diana Henry talked about why she likes food on the radio more than on TV.
This year’s theme is offal. Paul Rozin, the world’s leading expert on disgust, will explain why tripe makes so many go ‘ew!’ Fuchsia Dunlop will be celebrating the textures of Chinese offal. Tim Lang, professor of food policy of City University and trustee of Borough Market, will talk about where offal fits as part of a sustainable diet.
And the meals! The Friday dinner will be a “bold offal feast” cooked by Mr St John, aka Fergus Henderson, the king of nose to tail cookery; Saturday evening a “Quinto Quarto” Roman dinner by Jacob Kenedy, ingeniously including not just meat offal, but mullet liver and artichoke hearts. The physical menus are works of art in themselves, designed by Jake Tilson.
A sumptuous bread pudding
Saturday lunch will feature vegetables from Oxford Food Bank and leftover Borough Market bread, recycled into a sumptuous bread pudding, masterminded by the Symposium director Ursula Heinzelmann.
This lovely vegetarian lunch should be a reminder that offal in its old sense didn’t only refer to innards, but to any food that was discarded, ready to be reclaimed. Like the Symposium itself, it’s about salvaging forgotten treasures, talking about them and turning them into a feast.