How We Began – and grew

The Oxford Food 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 in 1979. Davidson had retired from the Foreign Office and was an Alistair Horne Fellow at St Anthony’s for the academic year 1978-79, researching science in the kitchen from a historical perspective.

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 attendees 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 the physicist 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. The third meeting on the 18th May turned into a general discussion of cookery books in their historical context. Elizabeth David spoke about how old recipes were used extensively and passed on orally for long periods before they were gathered into early cookery books. Additional participants were Jane Grigson, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, Claudia Roden, Sri and Roger Owen, Sami Zubaida, bookseller Janet Clarke and 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 among people from many different fields of study. 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.

The symposia continued at St Antony’s for several years, with around 30-50 attendees. No meals or accommodation were provided by the college, so all symposiasts contributed a dish for the Saturday communal lunch. These were informal meals, dishes were sometimes labeled with the contributor’s name or an explanation of the dish. The Dutch women always came with huge pieces of excellent Dutch cheeses; one year there was severe competition to try Julia Child’s offering, another for Claudia Roden’s.

Attendance numbers continued to rise, more symposiasts came from North America, Australia, the Phillippines, India and from many European countries. Cherry Ripe and Dr Max Lake came most years from Sydney, Charles Perry, Raymond Sokolov, Jeffrey Steingarten, Ken Albala, Harold McGee and Bruce Kraig from the United States, Doreen Fernandez and some of her students from the Philippines, Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir from Iceland, Johannes van Dam and Janny de Moor from Holland, Alicia Rios and Maria José Sevilla from Spain, Nevin Halici from Turkey, Ove Fossa from Norway. They were instrumental in introducing new people, and Dan Hofstadter’s extended article in The New Yorker (April 1988) gave the symposium a great boost in the States.

In 2002 Alan decided to stand down as co-chair. Theodore continued to attend for some years in a less formal capacity, and in March 2003 the Oxford Food Symposium on Food and Cookery became a charitable trust with 17 first trustees, all long standing symposiasts. They included Robert Chenciner, Richard Hosking, Jane Levi, Charles Perry, Raymond Sokolov, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, and Harlan Walker who also saw to the editing and printing of papers and organised and ran the registration and catering arrangements.

The symposium outgrew the facilities of St Antony’s, moved to Oxford Brookes in 2004 and 2005, before settling down at St Catz in 2006. In 2011 Celebration, a collection of recipes from symposiasts, was published to celebrate 30 years. Now the symposium’s warm, informal, collegiate approach draws in over 200 people every year, many of whom soon become regular faces every July.

In 2017 Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire launched a new oral history project relating to the Oxford Food 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.

President Claudia Roden reflects on the history of the Symposium: