For years I’ve wanted to go to England’s Oxford Food Symposium. Finally doing so gave me a chance to meet and hear from some of the great minds in food writing who don’t come to American conferences. A few observations:
I met some of my heroes and luminaries: Claudia Roden attended as the president of the symposium. Jill Norman, editor of English cookbook authors Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson was there, as was cookbook author Fuschia Dunlop.
A few American luminaries were also speakers or in the spotlight. Nutritionist Marion Nestle gave a keynote, and author Harold McGee gave out awards. Journalist and culinary historian Laura Shapiro spoke about gender and power and chaired a section on feminism.
Canadian cookbook author Naomi Duigud chaired sessions on culinary symbolism, and I met many other Canadians.
Add to this an enthusiastic crowd of food historians, professors, anthropologists, sociologists, independent scholars, and policy wonks. Not to mention journalists, cookbook authors, freelance writers, researchers, students and editors.
Speaking at the Food Symposium works differently than other conferences I’ve attended. If you want to present, you write a paper. Then a committee picks the papers they want presented at the conference.
The theme was “food and power.” It was pretty heady stuff. Authors presented around themes such as appropriation, gastrodiplomacy, propaganda and imprisonment. I went to talks on hunger, social justice, feminism, and incarceration. Some of it was fun, some dark, but all of it made me think and taught me something new.
A Wiki-editathon at the beginning of the Food Symposium focused mostly on food and women. Organizer Roberta Wedge said that Wikipedia has 6 million articles written by volunteers who are overwhelmingly men. The ratio of pages about chefs (mostly men) to cooks (mostly women) is 4 to 1. A group worked on adding more women food writers to the mix.
Between session, a bookstore on the premises made it easy to purchase British books that are harder to find–or more expensive–in the U.S. I bought too many.
I’ve never been to a conference where the attendees themselves presided over some of the meals. Artists created the most beautiful menus, each one to be kept as a memento.
On Friday night of the Food Symposium we enjoyed the foods of Puebla, Mexico. There were grasshoppers, chilies, and complimentary bottles of mescal. Members of the Hubb Community Kitchen in London, which formed after the Grenfell Tower fire, prepared lunch Saturday. Their fare included Yemeni bread with a spicy peanut dip, eggplant masala and rose petal-scented fruit salad with Indian shortbread. That evening featured a parade of Greek dishes such as snails, lamb and smoked mackerel. Lunch Sunday showcased cheeses and breads from London’s celebrated Borough Market.
The Next One
Lots of first-timers attended the Food Symposium this year, and younger people too. This pleased the organizers, who are getting older. So maybe it’s worth your time to join them next year. The topic is “herbs and spices” for the 2020 Oxford Food Symposium, which takes place July 10 – 12.