The Oxford Symposium was founded and co-chaired by Alan Davidson, food historian and author of The Oxford Companion to Food, and social historian Dr. Theodore Zeldin.
The Symposium had its origin in seminars sponsored by Zeldin and conducted by Davidson when he was an Alistair Horne Fellow at St. Anthony’s for the academic year of 1978-79. Zeldin had arranged the fellowship for Davidson, against a background of official scepticism, and even some outright opposition to the idea that Davidson’s proposed field of research – science in the kitchen from an historical perspective—was a suitable subject for Oxford University. In early 1979, at Zeldin’s prompting, a series of three meetings was held.
The first seminar on 4 May 1979 took as its theme the subject of Davidson’s fellowship: ‘Food and Cookery: the Impact of Sciences in the Kitchen’. Twenty-one people turned up, representing several disciplines from the history of medicine to mathematics to French literature, with the intention of discussing the historical connection between food-writing and writing on medical matters. The first Symposiasts included Elizabeth David, her editor and publisher Jill Norman, Anne Willan and Mark Cherniavsky of the La Varenne Cookery School in Paris, Paul Levy, Richard Olney and Professor Nicholas Kurti.
The second seminar on 11 May was on certain books published in the first half of the 19th century with particular emphasis on Accum’s Culinary Chemistry and the writings of Liebig. Claudia Roden and a few others joined the group for the second meeting. The third meeting on the 18th May turned into a general discussion of cookery books in their historical context. Here Elizabeth David offered one of the founding principles of food-history: that if you have an old recipe book with instructions for a particular dish, you must not conclude that this publication marks its debut as a dish, as it generally takes a generation—a minimum of 25 years—for a dish to get from kitchen practice to written record.
Additional participants were Jane Grigson, Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, Sri and Roger Owen, bookseller Janet Clarke and the first international Symposiasts, two Dutch scholars and writers, Berthe Meijer and Titia Bodon.
The success of the seminars showed that there was a great deal of interest in food history and the history of cookery. Those who shared this interest came from many different fields of study, and with no defined meeting point it could be very difficult to discover who else shared one’s own thirst for information on these topics. The demand was so clear that Davidson and Zeldin decided to expand the smaller seminars into Symposia, with themselves as co-chairmen. The first full scale Symposium was held in 1981; the next in 1983; since when, at the urging of Zeldin, under whose auspices the first Symposia were treated as University seminars, they have continued as annual gatherings.
In 2017 Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire launched a new oral history project relating to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. This ongoing project captures some of the backgrounds, stories, philosophies and memories of various symposiasts over the years, be they former trustees, organisers, or general attendees who are willing to share their experiences publicly.
The interviews (both the audio and the transcription) are available at the link here.