The breakfaster at the next table buttered his cold English toast and said confidentially, "You know, Sinologists now suspect Marco Polo never actually went to China."
Well. You never know what you're going to learn at the Oxford Symposium.
Take last year. An Englishman named Robert Chenciner presented a paper on the Bayeux Tapestry, the famous 230-foot-long strip of embroidered linen that William the Conqueror commissioned to celebrate his conquest of England. Since the subject of the Oxford Symposium is food and food history, Chenciner's supposed topic was whether one part of the tapestry shows two 11th-Century Frenchmen cooking shish kebab. His real topic was his evidence that the Bayeux Tapestry that we have today is not the original but a reproduction, dating from the 17th, 18th or maybe even the 19th Century.
That was the big story that made it into the English newspapers. Even so, at the Oxford Symposium about a third of the questions Chenciner got from the audience were about those two Frenchmen who might have been cooking shish kebab.
The Oxford Symposium is a unique gathering of what the Anglo-American food writer Paul Levy has called the scholar foodies. They read papers about food, they listen to papers about food, they argue and comment and if there were a sign reading "To the right, dinner; to the left, discussion of dinner," a lot of them would bear left. They are academics and cookbook writers, amateurs obsessed with some specialized food topic and just plain English eccentrics.
"We provide a forum for people interested in food history from all points of view," says Alan Davidson, who co-founded the Symposium 12 years ago. "We want to keep it free-wheeling and avoid the rigidity and bureaucracy of the academic world. Being at Oxford already invests the Symposium with semi-academic status, which is quite enough of that."
The Symposium began rather casually in 1979. Davidson, a well-known writer on fish, was a research fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford, where another fellow was Theodore Zeldin, a historian with an interest in the place of food in French history.
"One day," Davidson says, "Theodore accosted me in the corridor and asked, 'How do you propose to make the purpose of your presence here manifest to the College?'--very much a Theodore thing to say. 'You must give a seminar,' he said. So I gave one on food which was attended by a handful of people.
" 'Now,' he said, 'you must give another.' More people came and it emerged that there would be interest in a larger gathering." That larger gathering of Davidson's and Zeldin's was held in 1981 as the Second Oxford Symposium.
In the years since, the Symposium has developed a certain interest in the odder byways of food. In 1987, for instance, Robert Chenciner presented a paper, based on his own experience, about the custom of serving ram meat to honored guests in Dagestan, a region in the northeastern Caucasus Mountains of the USSR.
"They served you ram?" he was asked. "The meat of the adult male goat? It's generally considered inedible."
"Oh, it is inedible," he said, nodding emphatically. His theory was that the Dagestanis, among whom showing hospitality to the guest is very important, unfortunately have a limited diet and singled out ram meat somewhat arbitrarily as the food of honor. But not entirely arbitrarily; the ram is the totem animal of Dagestan--roof beams there curl up to resemble rams' horns, for instance.
So when an honored guest arrives, they slaughter the fattened ram. Or they kill a ram and dry it in the sun to keep on hand for honored dropper-inners. Just throw your ram jerky into a soup pot and add noodles, or boil the meat and use it as a ravioli filling, or make sausage out of it. The trouble is that ram meat is notoriously rank-smelling. Chenciner had videotapes taken in Dagestani villages where he was served ram dinners, and out of deference to his hosts he said nothing critical of the food. But at each of the taped meals, he referred to one dish as "quite lovely," which he explained as his code for the most inedible thing in the meal.
And ram meat is tough. One of Chenciner's hosts served him some sausage that he couldn't cut with a knife, so he left it on the plate. The next morning his host politely served it to him again at breakfast. He recognized his scratch marks from the night before.
Chenciner's paper was a big success--it even overshadowed a paper about medieval Near Eastern condiments made from rotted grain. By popular demand, he actually did an encore reading of his paper the second day of the Symposium.
Last year there was a paper on Black Banquets, such as one the 18th-Century gastronome Grimod de la Reyniere designed to resemble a funeral, and one on Aztec foods that posed theological questions for Mexico's Spanish conquerors: For instance, was it OK to eat iguana during Lent?
The author of that paper, Sophie Coe, is a serious food historian and was a little surprised when the BBC later wanted to interview her about eating iguanas and muskrats. It didn't help that she had written a series of articles for Alan Davidson's magazine "Petits Propos Culinaires" about foods of ancient Mexico that dwelt on insects, rodents and pond scum in Aztec diet. (There is a lot of overlap between attendees of the Oxford Symposium and contributors to "Petits Propos," where in recent years you could find Yemenite recipes for udder and an 18th-Century Chinese recipe for a steamed orange stuffed with crab meat among the sober articles on Romanian cookbooks and the origin of the Danish pastry.)
The Symposium has gotten a certain amount of publicity, including a New Yorker article a couple of years ago. Last year Julia Child dropped in at the last moment and attended a lot of sessions, beaming with satisfaction. As a result, the Symposium now faces an overpopulation crisis.
St. Antony's College will only allow 150 people to attend. Some of the symposiasts have proposed limiting attendance to people who are actually delivering papers, but if there were more than about 60 papers it would be financially impossible to publish the proceedings of the event. This year there were 51.
Technically, some papers could be rejected for being less scholarly than others, but Davidson says, "I think it's important to keep the door wide open to amateurs--a lot of the best work has been done by amateurs--as long as food history is not a recognized academic subject." No one has come up with a satisfactory solution to the crisis.
Still, the event went off well this year. At 10 a.m. on Sept. 7th, it began as usual with some papers intended to raise general issues in the 1991 Symposium's subject: public dining. For instance, a sociologist named Sami Zubeida pointed out that until the 18th Century, all food eaten in public was what we'd call fast food or street food.
For the rest of the Symposium, you always had a choice of three different collections of papers to hear at any given time. Directly after the opening session you could go to the Senior Members' Room to hear papers on street foods of Nigeria and Kenya, or to the Main Seminar Room to hear a Bostonian named Richard Mieli on the history of the Boston oyster house (originally a poor man's sort of restaurant, and rather rowdy--unescorted women were forbidden by law to enter them).
William Woys Weaver bemoaned the demise of the pepper pot soup, no longer sold at any Philadelphia restaurant. Originally the soup was rather rowdy too, a slaves' food made from tripe and fiercely seasoned with habanero peppers. In the 18th and early 19th Centuries it was sold on street corners, and at one time there was a restaurant that served 20 different kinds of pepper pot. Today you can only get it canned.
Then came the Symposium's traditional potluck luncheon, which always has some rather quaint foods among the dishes brought to illustrate papers. One salad was named "Fight the Garden--lentils, lemon balm and lovage, named in honor of the herbs that have been taking over my garden." There was an odd Welsh breakfast dish of seaweed balls and the tiny, smoky mollusks known as cockles. The retired Oxford science professor Nicholas Kurti contributed a scientifically assembled version of chicken Kiev, which he named "chicken Pravaz-Rynd-Wood" after the inventors of the hypodermic needle.
After lunch, a Bryn Mawr professor named Phyllis Bober read a paper about the cult of the Homeric heroes at ancient Greek banquets--everywhere in Greece but the area around Athens. She thought this just showed that the Athenians didn't have to prove to anybody that they were real Greeks, because theirs was the only part of Greece that hadn't been invaded after the heroic age.
At the same hour, two Englishwomen were telling all about the street foods of Iran and Afghanistan. Margaret Shaida's paper was the more surprising. Chelo kebab, the basic dish of Iranian restaurants, was unknown in most of Iran until 1850 when a new king ascended the Persian throne. He had been raised in Azerbaijan, where chelo kebab was popular, and he insisted on having a chelo kebab stand next to the palace. Incidentally, for his prime minister, he appointed the previous prime minister's cook.
After tea, three papers were read about the American hot dog, with fierce disagreements about its significance. If you weren't interested in that, you could hear about Japanese and Filipino street foods (the biggest news: the "hot bento " lunch pail, which shows that the Japanese are at last accepting the idea that some foods should be served warm). Or you could hear about food in ancient Babylonia, the best things to order in 9th Century Baghdad (roast meat with a pudding soaked in meat juices and fat; a cylindrical almond pastry) and the history of the Turkish coffee house.
The first night the Symposium traditionally has a dinner showing something unexpected about a familiar cuisine. One year it was nouvelle Swiss cuisine; last year there were uncommonly good English dishes. This year the plan was a Scottish game dinner, hopefully based on grouse. Unfortunately, the hunters didn't manage to shoot any grouse, and symposiasts had to settle for venison.
And food gossip. Food historian Barbara Wheaton revealed that she is writing a book about female chefs in France which she expects will take at least 15 years. It turns out that the first cookbook written by a Frenchwoman--long after women were writing cookbooks in England, Germany and Scandinavia--was "Fifty Ways to Cook a Potato."
The next morning you could hear about military food: field recipe manuals published during the American Civil War or what the British forces actually ate during the Gulf War ("lasagna": pancakes alternating with canned stew, topped with cheese sauce; "moussaka," the same using sliced potatoes instead of pancakes).
If that didn't appeal to you, you could go to the Main Seminar Room and hear how ice cream was sold on the streets before the invention of the ice cream cone: as "penny licks" (tiny scoops of ice cream served on what looked like shot glasses in order to make it look as if you had a larger portion than you did). Or how in the early 20th Century the ice cream parlors of Edinburgh were looked on as sinks of depravity every bit as bad as bars.
Or you could hear Sophie Coe give the details of an ancient Aztec banquet that began at dawn with water, then sacrifices, then tobacco, then flowers, then tamales, then fish and stews, then gifts and then cocoa. The guests were expected to rebuke the host (were his intentions good, was the food clean, were the gifts stolen?) so he would retain his humility and not value his gifts over those of the gods. Aztec women, it seems, were served chia porridge topped with chiles while the men had cocoa.
At nightfall, the older guests at the feast were allowed to drink an alcoholic beverage called pulque and eat hallucinogenic mushrooms with honey, and the banquet would be over at dawn. The whole thing was very expensive (you had to order a special kind of firewood used only for cooking tamales).
Later in the morning, Barbara Wheaton did an expose--about 130 years late, but better late than never--of the Expositions Universelles that were held in Paris during the 19th Century. These events awarded prizes and medals to all sorts of foods such as sausages, liqueurs and chocolates; sometimes you'll still see a brand of biscuits or table sauce that proudly boasts of winning something at one of them.
Wheaton discovered, however, that practically every product that was submitted got a prize of some sort--particularly if it was French-made. In one category of chocolates, the 1889 exposition handed out seven grand prizes, 66 gold medals, 105 silver medals, 183 bronze medals and about 150 honorable mentions. "You have to wonder about a chocolate that didn't win anything, " she said.
She was followed by an Italian writer, June di Schino, who gave great detail on 17th and 18th Century Sicilian pasta-eating. Pasta, it seems, was made out of doors, cooked out of doors and eaten out of doors--with cheese and pepper, because there wasn't any tomato sauce yet. The approved method was to take two strands in your fingers, raise them over your head and slurp them down. A Sicilian proverb said, "You eat pasta looking at the sky."
After coffee, you could hear vast amounts of detail about the beer taverns of Prague by a Texas-born woman named Sharon Hudgins, who the night before had organized a local Oxford pub crawl for those who were functioning on European time. Still to come were papers on East Asian street food, Canadian temperance hotels, the history of the English tea room and the nightmare of English hospital food.
Then came the final plenary session. Theodore Zeldin, looking as dapper as a Daumier caricature of Berlioz in a purple and gold plaid blazer, called for a vote on the next Symposium's topic: Flavorings.
Some of those who didn't want to fight the Sunday evening traffic back into London retired to Paul Levy's house in a nearby village. Levy, a columnist for the Observer magazine, manages to grow a surprising variety of things in a huge garden there, from cavolo nero , the leaf vegetable that forms the basis of most Tuscan soups, to tobacco.
He served salad and a Kentucky ham, which might have been a little hard to get in England. "I don't like Kentucky ham," piped his half-English daughter. "It's too salty. I like proper English ham." But at last, everybody had taken the turn that led to dinner, rather than a discussion of dinner.
This is a gentrified version of pepper pot (no tripe is called for), but it should be distinctly hot; the original pepper of choice in Philadelphia was the fiery habanero. The recipe appeared in "The Ladies' Assistant for Regulating and Supplying the Table" by Charlotte Mason, London, 1787.
PEPPER POT SOUP (18th-Century Recipe)
1 small head cabbage, coarsely chopped
1 large handful spinach, coarsely chopped
1 head romaine lettuce, coarsely chopped
2 to 3 onions, diced
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1/4 cup minced cooked ham
2 pounds lamb stew meat
1 crab or lobster, picked very small and cleaned from shell
Bring 3 quarts water to boil in stockpot. Add cabbage, spinach, lettuce, onions, thyme, ham and lamb. Cover and simmer until lamb is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
About 1/2 hour before serving, add crab and season to taste with salt and cayenne. About 20 minutes before serving, spoon Parsley Dumplings onto surface of soup and replace cover. Let diners season with cayenne to taste. Makes 8 servings.
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon minced parsley
3/4 cup water
3 tablespoons oil
Combine flour, baking powder, salt and parsley in medium bowl. Add water and oil and mix until just moistened. Makes 12 to 15 dumplings.
This is the traditional soup served in an Afghan teahouse (chaikhana) , "basic but quite delicious" as Helen Saberi says. It gets its name from the fact that it is usually cooked in a teapot set on a charcoal brazier. From "Noshe Jan," by Helen Saberi, Prospect Books, London, 1989.
SHERWA-E-CHAINAKI (Afghan Teapot Soup)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 lamb chops (about 1 pound), bone removed and meat cubed
1 tablespoon split peas
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
Flat bread, such as pita
Combine onion, lamb meat and split peas in 2-quart pot or saucepan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add water to cover. Bring slowly to boil and simmer, uncovered, 1 to 2 hours. Add cilantro.
Adjust seasonings to taste. Tear up parts of bread and place in individual soup bowls. Ladle in hot soup. Serve with tomato salad or sliced onion dressed with white wine vinegar. Makes 2 servings.
"James Beard, a Portland native, believed this dish was first served by that city's Bohemian Restaurant; others claim it was invented at Solari's in San Francisco. But food historian Evan Jones recently established (in his comprehensive biography of James Beard) that the dish was first served at Seattle's Olympic Club, back in 1904, to no less a person than Enrico Caruso. The famous tenor liked the dish so much he ordered plate after plate until the club ran out." From the paper "Street Food/Road Food in the Pacific Northwest" by John Doerper.
ORIGINAL CRAB LOUIS
1/2 head iceberg lettuce
1 pound fresh cooked Dungeness crab meat, flaked
1 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup whipped cream
1/3 cup chili sauce
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped roasted Anaheim chiles
4 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup black olives, sliced
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
Cut lettuce into narrow shreds and divide equally among 4 plates. Divide crab meat into 4 equal portions and place on top of lettuce.
Mix mayonnaise with whipped cream, chili sauce, green onions and chiles. Season to taste with cayenne. Spread dressing generously over crab meat, Garnish each plate with hard-cooked eggs and olive slices. Sprinkle with cilantro. Makes 4 servings.
From Sharon Hudgins's Oxford Symposium paper "The Beer Taverns of Prague."
PIVOVARSKY GULAS (Czech Beer Hall Goulash)
1/4 cup lard or vegetable oil
1/4 pound bacon, finely chopped
2 large onions, chopped
3 tablespoons mild paprika
1 tablespoon hot paprika
1 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck or pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 pound mushrooms, cleaned and quartered lengthwise
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup beef stock
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 small onion, sliced thinly into rings
Horseradish, preferably freshly grated
Boiled potatoes or egg noodles
Heat lard in 4-quart casserole or stockpot. Add bacon and onions and cook over medium-high heat until onions are tender and translucent. Reduce heat to very low. Sprinkle in mild and hot paprika and stir well.
Add beef cubes. Raise heat to medium and cook until meat is browned on all sides. Stir in mushrooms and garlic. Dissolve tomato paste in stock and add to pot. Add salt and pepper and stir well. Bring to boil over high heat. Cover and simmer over very low heat until tender, about 45 minutes.
Serve, garnished with onion rings and horseradish, boiled potatoes and beer. Makes 6 servings.
From Margaret Shaida's paper "Chellow-Kabab, the National Dish of Iran." In place of the green salad, you can serve a mixture of as many fresh herbs as desired: tarragon, basil, mint, watercress, marjoram, chives, green onions.
JOOJEH KABAB (Iranian Chicken Kebab)
1 whole chicken (not over 2 1/4 pounds)
1/2 small onion
Juice of 1 small lemon
2 tablespoons oil
Cut legs and wings from chicken. Cut legs into thighs and drumsticks. Using poultry shears, cut out backbone. Flatten breast firmly and cut across into 2 pieces.
Grate onion over chicken pieces. Add lemon juice and oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix well. Cover and leave to marinate at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.
Start charcoal in barbecue. On long skewer, thread chicken pieces in following order: wing, drumstick, thigh, breasts, thigh, drumstick, wing; or arrange on grill with thickest pieces in middle. Pound 4 to 5 threads of saffron in mortar and dissolve in marinade.
When charcoal is covered with white ash, place skewers on grate. Grill until cooked through, about 25 to 30 minutes, turning frequently and basting with marinade. Slip cooked chicken off skewers onto warm plate and garnish with lemon wedges. Serve with warm bread and green salad, if desired. Makes 2 servings.
At the 1990 Oxford Symposium a dinner was served with the object of showing English food "of a kind not usually encountered." One of the hits was this 17th-Century dessert, a luxurious, fluffy cousin to Key lime pie filling. From "Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen" by Elizabeth David, Penguin Books, 1970.
2 medium lemons
1 pint whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg whites, stiffly beaten
Grate lemon zest. Strain lemon juice into cup. Pour whipping cream into large bowl. Stir in sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice. Beat just until mixture stands in peaks. Fold in egg whites.
Place round sieve or cheese mold over plate and line with muslin wrung out in cold water. Turn mixture into lined sieve and leave to drain overnight.
Turn mixture out onto shallow dish and ladle into bowls. Serve with unsalted crackers, English plain biscuits or cookies. Makes 6 servings.
Note: Although many recipes call for uncooked eggs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found them to be a potential carrier of food-borne illness and recommends that diners avoid eating raw eggs. Commercial egg substitutes may be used in place of raw eggs in certain circumstances. Check egg substitute package for applications.