I was here to meet a food historian, a cookbook author and an archeology scholar. I was also here to revisit a little piece of my history as I spent a few summers and glorious weekends in this exquisite place. With a theme of Communications, historians from many countries presented papers on a wide-ranging, eclectic array of topics, most of which had nothing to do with what we consider food and communications today. This was yesterday’s world. For food historians, little about the current revolution in food communications via Instagram, Twitter, Food Network and the rest of it is actually compelling. Its impact has not been fully realized; it has not yet reshaped the world in the way that spices or ovens or free-range chickens have. What writers sought to communicate through texts of previous centuries, how they changed migration patterns and arguably, the human soul, that is the stuff of food history and communication. It makes compelling narrative, and if you don’t believe me, you can read The History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat or my all-time favorite, Food in History by Reay Tannahill. One book celebrated at this conference was The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets by Dara Goldstein, which I have already begun to rely on as I research the history of sponge cakes, for instance, and how something so French became part of the British classic dessert repertoire. This book mirrors the format of the Oxford Companion to Food which, not coincidentally, was written by Alan Davidson, the scholar who created the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in 1983.
As much as I’d like to catch next year’s conference, the subject is “Offal”. How many times can we make the observation that offal is awful? The whole point is to dispel that myth, of course. I’m not a vegetarian but never much liked fabricating meat and probably can’t quite stomach the intellectual challenge of redeeming hoofs, entrails, gristle and knuckles. This conference dares wimps like me, and with the vogue and essential trend of tail-to-snout butchery and reduction of food waste, maybe I’ll even read the published reports later. Mercifully, the papers are usually free of pix. I also have to save my steam and food conference budget for food and politics, because the current issues strike me as urgent (deforestation, GMO’s, big ag lobbyists, food justice for the poor, etc.). Next to bring attention to these timely and complicated subjects: The New York Times’s Food for Tomorrow next month in upstate New York. It sold out fast while I was on the fence but I’ll collect the presentations and pass them along. It’s all enough to make you just want to go off and bake a pretty cake.
Goodbye for now, Oxford UK.