2020 Report

Richard Shepro’s report:

On 4 May 1979 twenty scholars participated in a little conference in Oxford that led in later years to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. We could play the game of imagining what they might have said had they been told that in the year 2020, after decades of holding symposia in Oxford colleges, the Symposium would be conducted electronically and simultaneously in half the world’s time zones

by Picture Phone, illustrated text and musical accompaniment, with each Symposiast participating in his or her own home or office—but that inquiry would be futile because no one could have anticipated (1) the strength and longevity of the Oxford Food Symposium, (2) the technology that could allow a world-wide symposium even to be remotely plausible, and (3) the drive and skill of a world of food-focused heroes to make something happen that no one was even dreaming of in the past.I believe this year’s historic Symposium—in virtual and in global form for the first time—truly astonished everyone. It certainly surprised and delighted me. Since this Report is supposed to provide a historical record, I should note some things that most current readers will already know. At the beginning of March 2020, potential authors were only just finding out whether or not the paper proposals they had submitted were accepted, at the same time that the leaders of the Symposium were evaluating options under time pressure as the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated. Quickly, most international travel became a practical impossibility. I will leave it to those who made it all happen—the entire group of Trustees and a small group they formed—to tell of the twists and turns in planning this virtual Symposium, and how, despite problems along the way, they made it a success.

The topic, “Herbs & Spices,” produced impressive scholarship through the papers and talks, and through four inspiring and at some points excitingly controversial keynote speeches. That was in a sense business as usual. In that sense, the fifty-some hours of intense, packed activity went on normally, but this was decidedly not a normal year. In a normal year, I might ‘present a personal selection from the many highlights,’ as Len Fisher did so perceptively in the Report on the Oxford Symposium 2014 or drill down into the most salient issues raised by the keynote talks, as Laura Shapiro did in the Report for 2019. As with past reporters, I will not attempt to cover all the presentations and encounters.

The discussions of herbs and spices were illuminating. We had an intense study of the subject for an entire month! (Yes, from the release of papers and recipes and the initial opportunities to post our thoughts, the Symposium lasted an entire month instead of fifty hours, culminating in an Umberto-Eco-like final plenary session on 2 August by Professor Krishnendu Ray, who categorized by historiographic and semiotic style nearly every paper that had been presented while commenting on the most controversial questions in an inquiring and appreciative manner.) The result was enhanced knowledge of particular herbs and spices, keener cross-cultural understanding, deep historical insight and broad recognition of important contemporary issues.

But the real highlights this year were the Symposium itself, its novel and varied formats, and the limitless yet complex (and double-edged) possibilities this whole new virtual venture portends. There were more first-timers and first-time presenters than ever before. Registration was roughly double the previously best-attended symposium. Many attended who could not possibly have considered travelling to Oxford. Participants scattered across the world suffered actual jet-lag while staying within their own times zones as they adapted to the Symposium schedule: a medically recognized side-effect of this Zoom era that we find ourselves in.

Participatory question and answer sessions lent an intimacy and depth to the Symposium. I would never have expected to use the words ‘intimacy’ and ‘depth’ about a virtual meeting. How could there be intimacy in a Zoom session with hundreds of participants on computers, phones and tablets? Yet this was not like sitting back and watching a webinar or a movie. The intimacy began, for me, in the ‘tea breaks’, randomly assigned small-group breakout sessions during the original 50 hours, and then got really going in the plenary session the Monday following with the question-and-answer session with long-time Symposiast and Trustee Harold McGee, who had already charmed us with images of his vanilla house plant, with his characteristically thorough scholarship and by spilling some secrets of how he does food science research. Then the questions began, and we were THERE. In the room. There with Harold as he took question after question. For once a speaker could be heard perfectly. Even if you came late to the session. There were no bad seats. We were there with good seats in the homes or offices or in front of the chosen virtual backdrops of each participant. As in the tea breaks, we saw each other in situ and learned about each other in ways we might not have in St Catz tea breaks where so often we talk to those we  know, only occasionally summoning the courage and nerve to approach someone whose paper or presentation we’ve appreciated (or, in occasional cases, haven’t).

It turns out that we at the Oxford Symposium are not the only ones experiencing this surprising intimacy. A recent analysis in Harvard Business Review (not the most frequently cited source in Symposium papers) found the same surprise in business meetings: ‘The experience of sitting around a big table can be vastly different depending on where you’re sitting relative to the main speakers. With Zoom, you can see everyone’s faces and eyes right in front of you, which has a huge impact on focus, connection, and ultimately decision-making.’

The article also suggested the virtual experience is enhanced by being prepared. The long month gave at least a theoretical opportunity to read papers and watch presentations on your own schedule, to chat about them on-line, and then to discuss a set of papers for an hour. Quite a few Symposiasts were able to do exactly that and it really showed in the live Q&A sessions. I’d long wished for that depth of discussion with the authors of the papers that most intrigued me and with those who read my papers or heard me speak.

Admittedly, some of the excitement may have been the novelty. If the pandemic persists, another purely virtual symposium might seem tedious, though that is an open question. I do know that people’s experiences did vary. In break-out sessions it was sometimes hard for first-timers to break-out past the chatter of old friends reconnecting. It looked to me like perhaps between 50 and 100 people managed to attend a large number of the live events, but there were 550 registrants. Some people were stymied in attending by some technical glitches at the beginning and some Symposiasts kind of gave up after a time. Time zones, work schedules and childcare made a month of participation hard for many, and fatigue may have set in for others, but in the end many participants, some who have never set foot in Oxford, felt the same sense of loss on 2 August that many of us feel every year at the end of our fifty intense Symposium hours.

In 2006, a new era in good dining at the Symposium, and with it a new era in good fellowship, began, as the Symposium moved to St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Soon there were celebrated guest chefs working with Tim Kelsey, head chef at St Catz, and his energetic and skilled team. By default of the pandemic, this year’s Symposium introduced a novelty. It is not yet an era: Do-It-Yourself meals under the personal direction of guest chefs who provided recipes and then, with much fanfare, videos that included some demonstrations. Three meals, as usual, but not eaten by everyone at once because of the time zones and because you can’t always cook and Zoom at the same time (though many of us did). These meals, too, added intimacy and depth to our conference. Intimate, because we had opportunities to make the dishes ourselves, sometimes repeatedly, and get to know those dishes, and a different kind of intimacy in our chefs’ videos, in the opportunity to ‘talk’ on-line to them and to other Symposiasts and then to have an intimate Q&A.

As always, the three meals complemented the seminar topic. They also produced a level of discussion and interest that actually exceeded in depth most discussions of the very special food served at St Catz during the seminar. The dishes and the themes they represented were on our minds for the whole month. Zita Cobb and her chefs Tim Charles and Jonathan Gushue emphasized the local traditions at their isolated island, Fogo, off Newfoundland. David Tanis focused with powerful intensity on just One Good Spice in each of the dishes he had crafted uniquely for this Symposium, and he then participated in live discussions like the deeply thoughtful writer he is. (He had also, after some training in Vietnam, written a recipe for the French/Vietnamese lemon grass beef stew called Bo Kho that helped inspire Janet Beizer’s presentation on French colonial food influences, and that led me to make Bo Kho as I write this essay). Asma Khan taught us about the spice use of a skilled cook influenced by a plethora of ancestors and regions, championing ‘second daughters’ and underappreciated women workers, and she emphasized the culinary gulf in India between rice eaters and wheat eaters. We had a bonus with the exuberant short film about Sri Owen made by Janice Gabriel.

I ended my own paper presentation this year by asserting that saffron in its own way ‘is not expensive, but it is precious.’ The Symposium this year was inexpensive to attend, and created memories that, like saffron, are unforgettable.