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.
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.
Our current President, Claudia Roden, reflects on the Symposium’s history:
First held at St Antony’s College Oxford in 1981 and now housed at St Catherine’s College Oxford, the Symposium is chaired by writer and journalist Paul Levy 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.
The Oxford Symposium was originally founded and co-chaired by Alan Davidson, pre-eminent food historian and author of The Oxford Companion to Food and Dr Theodore Zeldin, the celebrated social historian of France.
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–cience 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 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, to discuss 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.
The Trust for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery was founded as an educational charity in March 2003 by seventeen long-standing Symposiasts.
“The objects of the Trust,” as written in its founding Deed, “are the advancement of education in all aspects of food and cooking and the promotion of research into all aspects of those subjects for the benefit of the public”.
The Trust Deed also makes clear that, “In the context of the Trust …the words food and cooking are to be understood and interpreted in the widest sense”.
The Trustees have the following powers to be exercised in promoting the founding aims of the Trust:
“To promote or carry out research”: to encourage participants to carry out original research into any aspect of food and cooking relevant to that year’s subject with a view to writing and presenting a paper on the topic.
“To provide advice”: to offer advice to those seeking research facilities and possibly financial assistance towards the publication of academic food studies.
“To publish or distribute information either at an annual Symposium or otherwise”: to provide a firm financial basis for the annual Symposium and so ensure its continuation; to publish the proceedings of each Symposium in book form available to both specialist and general readers; and to fulfill the educational objective of bringing the study of food before a wider audience by setting up public lectures and talks.
“To cooperate with other bodies”: to work with other educational foundations and institutions to place food studies on an established academic footing.
“To make grants or loans of money including bursaries, travel grants and research grants”: to offer bursaries and travel grants to students who wish to attend the annual Symposium and to provide research grants to those keen to undertake the study of food and cooking and its history, particularly in areas unlikely to attract funds from elsewhere.
“To raise funds”: to maintain an Endowment Fund to allow the Trust to realise its educational objectives.
The Trust is chaired by Paul Levy, the president is Claudia Roden and the director is Elisabeth Luard. Theodore Zeldin provides guidance as Patron.
Current Trustees include:
- President: Claudia Roden
- Director: Elisabeth Luard
- Chair: Paul Levy
- Jeremy MacClancy
- Caroline Conran
- Andrew Dalby
- Ursula Heinzelmann
- Cathy Kaufman
- Jane Levi
- Michael Macmillan
- William Rubel
- David Sutton
- Jake Tilson
- Bee Wilson
- Mark McWilliams
Each year, papers from the Symposium are published in the Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Edited by Mark McWilliams and published by Tom Jaine at Prospect Books, the volumes provide a permanent record of the Symposium’s explorations of the many themes considered over the more than thirty years of its history.
With the support of the Friends of the Oxford Symposium and the American Friends, past proceedings, including several volumes no longer easily available in print, have been digitised and placed on the web in free downloadable form.
In 2011, to recognize the 30th anniversary of the first Symposium, the Symposium published a collection of past Symposiasts’ favourite celebratory recipes under the editorship of Jill Norman with an introduction by Theodore Zeldin.
The Oxford Symposoium on Food & Cookery is registered as an educational charity in England and Wales. For details of its formal relationship with the UK Charities Commission and copies of reports made please see this link: Charity Commission
1- Report of the Trustees and Unaudited Financial Statements For The Year Ended 31 December 2011 for the OSFC. Download PDF.
2- Report of the Trustees and Unaudited Financial Statements For The Year Ended 31 December 2010 for the OSFC. Download PDF.
3- Report of the Trustees and Unaudited Financial Statements For The Year Ended 31 December 2009 for the OSFC. Download PDF.
4- Symposium Report 2012. Download PDF.
5- Charities Commission Report 2007-2010. Download PDF.
6- Report for the Charities Commission 2011. Download PDF.