This weekend, the 2009 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery will be held at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford and I cannot be there. Instead, many of my friends will be there and I will hear all about it when they return. This year’s topic is on “Food & Language” and although I had an idea for an abstract, I was much too busy to do the research. Besides, after reading this year’s paper topics, I don’t think I would’ve had anything near as intellectual to add. I cannot believe that a whole year has gone by without me even reporting on what happened last year so although late, it’s better than nothing.
Because it was my second time at the symposium last year, I felt “at home” and less nervous about mingling with people and reading my paper (although I was put in the big lecture theatre which is always very intimidating). The faces were familiar and surprisingly, people remembered me as well. I was thrilled to hear that I’d be reading my paper with Elizabeth Andoh, the author of “Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen” – winner of the 2006 James Beard Cookbook award and that our moderator this time was Fuschia Dunlop, Chinese Scholar and author of “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper” and “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook” to name a few. In 2006, I read my paper with Fuschia on the same panel so I was happy to be with someone I was familiar with so it kept my nerves down.
When the symposium schedule is put together every year, similar subjects are often lumped into one session and it was natural that both me and Elizabeth were paired together since we were talking about Japanese subjects. Elizabeth read a paper on Modoki, vegetarian temple food that is artistically formed to resemble something completely different from what it is made of. A very fascinating topic that was made better by Elizabeth showing great photos of such beautiful cuisine. I thought that we worked well as a team and we bounced ideas off each other and presented the tasting of various forms of daikon together. It was a great pleasure to be on the same panel as Elizabeth…I hope to visit her in Japan one day.
My paper was about daikon - the humble yet very important radish…but not about ordinary daikon but focused in particular about a radish that grew through asphalt in a small town in Japan and was made into a national celebrity and anthropomorphised into a symbol of hope. The extraordinary twist to the story is that the radish was vandalized one night and caused a great uproar among the townspeople – so much so that the vandals returned the radish to its original growing place due to guilt. This radish, although in a poorly state, was revived and has since gone on to produce four generations and will be sold as seeds. I also went on to discuss the importance of daikon in Japanese cuisine. It was by far no way near as intellectual as many others but my aim was to bring some lighthearted quirkiness with relevance to the topic.
What was exciting was that a film crew from BBC4 were there the whole weekend filming various people reading their topics for a new documentary on food writer/historian Alan Davidson – the founder of the symposium. Right before we started our session, the camera guy came up to me and said how thrilled he was to hear my paper and that he was looking forward to it…that made me nervous. Anyway, all went well and I was sent an email saying that they’d like to use footage of me in the documentary and then I signed my life away…but I still haven’t heard when this documentary will be airing…more on that when I hear about it.
If you are really interested in food from an academic angle, you should try to make your way to Oxford one year. The symposium is attended by the “who’s who” in the industry with many there who have written numerous books. My favourite regular is Claudia Roden, who is so sweet and her book on Jewish cuisines is one of my all-time favourites. In 2006, Jeffrey Steingarten attended and so many people were dying to talk to him…I wasn’t one of them but he was keen to talk to my friend who didn’t even know who he was! The symposium is a great place to network with like-minded people and not feel bad about making any elite comments about food…lol. The food was great last year and it looks like it will be fabulous this year as well. Looks like Raymond Blanc’s (who’s there every year) restaurant Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons will be providing the last dinner and it’ll be called, “The Language of French Gastronomy: From the Raw to the Cooked.” I’m jealous.