2021 Report

Priya Mani’s report:

I am a virtual Symposium old-timer.

That is to say, a novice, uninitiated in the delights and warmth of the real gathering. But I know Symposiasts in untraditional ways, through the intimacy of Zoom – their bookshelf backdrops, a random pet that makes an appearance or the occasional presence of a spouse.

For forty years, I am told, friends and strangers have gathered in Oxford for a weekend steeped in food thinking. Many of us would have taken the train journey to Oxford in a typical year, and the 40th-year celebration in 2021 would have been a historic affair at St.Catz. We celebrated nonetheless in a pre-Symposium Zoom room hosted by Jill Norman, with many early symposiasts including Claudia Roden, Barbara Wheaton, Charles Perry, Harold McGee, Paul Levy, and Sami Zubaida, filling us with recollections and curious trivia of the Symposium’s simple beginnings.

But the power of this virtual gathering [471 attendees], its accessibility [39 countries, 100 new Symposiasts in 2021] and outreach to attract global talent [26 out of 55 papers presented were first-timers] is evident in its data!

The Symposium has been familiar to me mainly through its generous [public] Proceedings. Powering through the pandemic year, the Symposium has expanded its outreach. A new monthly newsletter [What’s Cooking; signup, if you haven’t already] and monthly virtual gatherings [Kitchen Table; the new season is starting soon]- all invite thought leaders to put relevant conversations on the table.

Plenaries & Keynotes

Four special, creative plenaries set the stage for Food and Imagination this year.

“Some writers allow their characters to eat, others don’t.” In a brilliant and witty conversation with Mark McWilliams, visionary writer Margaret Atwood shared her keen interest in food history and the cooking that informs her writing. She was always curious to explore “who ate what, and occasionally, who ate who.” I was both amused and delighted at Margaret’s generosity to offer insights into food history on many occasions, oblivious to the generally above-average standard of her OFS audience. “Does anybody not know what an ice house is; perhaps no one knows what an ice house is?!” or her practical quip, “If you are writing about 0 AD, there is going to be a lot of food that just wasn’t there”.

Eric Rath opened with the existential question “What is a cuisine?” and showed us the culinary imagination of the chefs to Japan’s elite and samurais who whipped up entire banquets of inedible foods. These were never consumed, obviously, leading us to speculate what purpose they might have served but for culinary supremacy and acknowledgement? Eric’s deep insight into the rich visual metaphors and wordplay in Japanese cuisine was truly a banquet of ideas for me.

Rob Hopkins delivered a show of possibilities – “What you cannot see, you cannot build!” As he shared his cliff top view of our fragmented food systems he made apparent “on how we lock ourselves into a false sense of inevitability.” In his countless examples, communities galvanized themselves into reclaiming their physical and mental spaces, inspiring us to make the transitions from “status quo” to “what if..” and “what next”.. perhaps echoing the efforts that lie at the heart of the Symposium itself.

If there is a talk that must not be missed, it must be Janet Beizer’s anamnesis on the closing day of the Symposium. As she noted “the echoes, rhyming thoughts and concerns, intersections, intertwined threads and shared feelings” like a “caterpillar on a leaf” for “the 23 days of the Symposium”, Janet’s eloquent narrative clearly laid before me how quintessentially broad, intellectual and interdisciplinary a group we are! Where else could a historian, scientist, chef, artist, poet, lawyer, film maker, salt maker, magician and home cook break bread together?

The Food

The Symposium meals at St.Catz, I have heard, are the stuff of legends. Jake Tilson’s menu cards and the meals cooked by Tim Kelsey at the St.Catz Kitchen – all curated and hosted by Ursula Heinzelmann and Gamze Ineceli. I am raw here, having never been to St.Catz for the real deal. But the DIY catering at the virtual Symposium, I can assure you, is as delicious. What is even better, with the recipes on hand, you can treat yourself to Symposium-style food throughout the year. I may even propose they suggest a tapas-style DIY menu for our monthly Kitchen Table events.

Aurelia Hamm invited us into her family estate Weingut Hamm’s wine cellars in Germany for our welcome drink on Friday. Raising a toast to a new generation of women in wine, sustainability and science felt as real as it could have been at St. Catz.

The topic of ‘Food and Imagination’ had many wondering what the menu for this year would be like. Would it be extraordinary, imaginary, outlandish or assertively fantastical? The three meals served during the weekend were all this. Skye Gyngell suggested a little imagination could make ordinary ingredients into extraordinary meals. Junya Yamasaki asked us to go to great lengths to seek the right fish and finish, essential to bring imagination to reality. Virgilio Martinez brought the alchemy from modernist kitchens to imagine Peru’s wild landscapes on the plate. I took an immersive approach to the menu, cooking as many dishes as I could. In the absence of an actual event, this was the closest I could get to feel the power of togetherness.

Skye Gyngell of London’s Spring Restaurant introduced herself as “a cook and chef”, putting us at ease with her approachable tone. Her menu, “fresh, clean and scented foods of her childhood”, were full of ideas for the home cook.

Skye firmly noted, “I don’t believe we need to reproduce the restaurant experience at home.” And still, I think in the mind of a chef lies an imagination so potent that it offers an otherworldly experience for diners. It puts restaurants on the pilgrimage map and makes for showmanship in street kitchens.

We tasted Japanese sensibilities for Saturday afternoon as a perfect prelude to Eric Rath’s plenary. Junya Yamasaki of LA’s now cult food truck Yess Aquatic and wine consultant Yukiyasu Kaneko presented our lunch menu, “Oceanic Haiku”.  A three-day curry, the 60% polished rice and perfectly cooked fish – all called for time, patience and great sensorial attention to detail.

We travelled to the Andes on Saturday evening where Matias Mulanovich introduced us to 14 Inkas, Peru’s first vodka he made with the farmers of Huancavelica. Peru, with over 3500 native potatoes, who never had potato vodka. Until now. Virgilio Martinez recreated Andes’ terrain on our dinner plates with a fantastical menu. Gamze had shared the recipes but teased our imagination by withholding Virgilio’s pictures of the food. As Elisabeth Luard put it, “Gamze and I considered taming down the recipes but then decided to let it be. With a bit of imagination, one could surely try them.” Jake Tilson had found a typeface used in Peru in 1584 for the menu design.

I decided to cook this dinner. Each dish consisted of many small cooked elements composed as landscapes on a plate. As I researched Virgilio’s work, Peru’s nature became a dominant visual. I went back to good ol’ sketching to sketch the dishes on paper before attempting to cook them. The process and the results were deeply insightful into the mind of a chef.

Sunday’s lunch spotlighted intriguingly simple, clean and seasonal menus from the Young Chefs Collective. I wonder if this will be a clue to the next generation of culinary ideologies awaiting upon us?

To complement each meal, chefs demonstrated their technique in short videos often in the environment that inspires them. An intimate kitchen moment, perhaps unique to the online Symposium, lingered. A feeling inspired by their philosophy and eye and to recreate one of your own.

The Films

Hands and the mind were omnipresent in the film screenings – in Nilesh Patel’s “A Love Supreme”  the kitchen became a maternal space as his mother’s labouring hands fashioned a samosa. Ali Kefenick’s speculative “Meaty Propositions” was a thought-provoking call to address the disconnect of our minds and hands in the kitchen from the farm and its environment while Cristobal Ruiz’s short on the salt makers of Maras in Peru was all about reclaiming the rights of the altiplano’s labouring hands.

The online Symposium’s Notice Board and Fringe were abuzz with conversations hosted by Ken Albala, and Symposiast Birgitte Kampmann hosted Let’s Cook and Imagine for Symposiasts’ kitchen trials and meals.

The Papers & Zoom Chat Rooms

The broad spectrum of papers became meaningful panels in the hands of Cathy Kaufman. Needless to say, her knowledge of the presenters and the moderators they needed shone through each time!

In my own paper this year, I touched upon the future of plant-based meat analogues enabled by futuristic technology and anchored a panel on imagination in the medieval kitchens of Hindu India and Jewish Sabbath foods.

I filled in for the Tech team on the last day and boy, I was dazzled by the Symposium’s script, act and precision. Well, Symposiums simply do not run themselves. Thank you Elisabeth, Ursula, Claudia, Cathy, David, Naomi, Mark, Gamze, Elaine, Jake, Carolyn and so many of you, as always for your vision, your attention to detail and your enthusiasm.

I will not attempt to go into great detail with the papers. Instead, I will offer you a taste of the many compelling, thought-provoking one-liners shared on the Zoom chat rooms by paper presenters and attendees. The Zoom chat rooms have come to bear a sense of ephemeral magic. In the spirit of the chatroom’s safe anonymity and moments of wisdom, I am noting some of my favourite lines from this year so far, some profound, others purely hilarious!

  • – “The idea of free diving [for fish] creates an almost equal ecology between the hunter and hunt. Hunter is also the hunt.”
  • – “We have to allow for these cracks where the light comes in.”
  • – “Our geography is like a wrinkled paper.”
  • – “Food can change your soul for a little bit”
  • – “It’s like Tolstoy: Happy families are all alike… Only unhappy families are interesting. (analogy w good food/bad food)”
  • – “My mother was a terrible cook, my brothers and I share so many  fond memories of her food incidents/adventures/obsessions.”
  • – “In Romania, information on food was designed to paint a pretty picture rather than tell the truth.” / “Well, that’s a description of food on Instagram sometimes now”
  • – “Celery had a price spike last year due to a smoothie craze.”
  • – “Hunger was a motivation for me to learn to cook.”
  • – “A Romanian version of Iles Flottantes. So our mother would call it “Birds milk” – Bird’s milk became a wonderful metaphor for rarity.”
  • – “We are often performing with food”
  • – “I had fits of patriotic fervor when they wanted me to pay 5p for a packet of ketchup”
  • – “England has some affection for the size of vegetables. Are there still “show leeks” bred to win contests? Giant courgettes called vegetable marrows?”
  • – “Butter sculpture might be a little problematic under global warming.”
  • – “Very bad, incorrect historical food video series in Greece… everything attributed to Plato…even tomatoes in some terrible episode I watched the other day!”
  • – “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
  • – “Food takes on the interests of the context in which the tale is written…”
  • – “We generally are attracted by nostalgia and we’re prepared to be conned by lack of transparency.”
  • – “Bonsai – taking a creature and moulding it to suit the market.”
  • – “The food should sing, not the plates.”
  • – “Imagine what the reader is reading”
  • – “Just as books in other subjects are written for different levels of expertise, not all cookbooks need to be for all cooks.”