The Oxford Symposium is the original conference for people with a broad interest in food. Held at St Catz in Oxford.
The Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery is an annual, weekend-long conference on food, its culture and its history. The oldest and most important gathering on this topic, it brings together up to 220 international scholars, journalists, chefs, scientists, sociologists, anthrolopogists—and even committed amateurs—among others, for a serious discussion about the theme at hand.
President, Claudia Roden reflects on the history of the Symposium:
Although held at Oxford University and serious in its purpose, the Symposium prides itself on being slightly outside the academy. We believe that our strength lies in encouraging dialogue between people who, despite arriving from a variety of backgrounds and degrees of knowledge, share a common passion. Attendees include writers, academics, cooks, independent scholars, and enthusiasts.
First held at St Antony’s College Oxford in 1981 and now housed at St Catherine’s College Oxford, the Symposium is chaired by food writer and historian Bee Wilson and the president is Claudia Roden, whose books on the Middle East, Italy, and Jewish cooking are modern classics.
Topics are chosen three years in advance: specific subjects or particular foodstuffs alternate year on year with more philosophical or esoteric themes. Plenary talks by particular experts—including in recent years such luminaries as Raymond Blanc, Harold McGee, Ruth Reichl, Sidney Minz, Simon Schama, Laura Shapiro, Hervé This, and Richard Wrangham—interweave with panels of workshop papers. Distributing papers to Symposiasts before each gathering allows for detailed discussions that often push research in new directions.
As should be expected with such a gathering, business is often also pleasure, particularly during the spectacular meals designed to accompany each year’s theme. Under the patient and highly skilled guidance of head chef Tim Kelsey, the kitchen at St Catz hosts guest chefs and works with ingredients often provided through generous sponsorships from individual producers and even whole countries.
A particular appeal of the Oxford Symposium is its informality, which enhances the opportunity to make new contacts in a field in which it can be notoriously difficult to network. Conversations started in paper sessions continue over tea and dinner to cement connections between long established and new scholars, chefs and academics, journalists and artisanal producers.