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The 2005 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

by Sharon Hudgins

Photo: Headington Hill Hall, at Oxford Brookes University in England, site of the 2005 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

The Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery is an international conference held annually in Oxford, England. It attracts an eclectic group of participants from around the world (some might even call them a motley crew), including cookbook authors, journalists, editors, publishers, professional chefs, nutritionists, culinary historians, curators, academics from several fields (humanities, natural sciences, social sciences), and amateurs (in the finest sense of that word).

"Culinary authenticity" was the topic of the 2005 Oxford Symposium, which was held on September 3-4 at Oxford Brookes University. One hundred and fifty people gathered to hear and discuss papers presented on a variety of subjects related to that topic, such as "The Authenticity of Wild Boar in Europe" (Caroline Conran); "The Strange Tale of General Zuo's Chicken" (Fuchsia Dunlop); "Native Vinegar and Its Role in the Culinary Culture of the Philippines" (Pia Lim Castillo); "Films & Culinary Authenticity" (Francois Brocard); "Fusion: The Heart of Authenticity" (Anne L. Bower); "In the Eye of the Beholder, On the Tongue of the Taster: What Constitutes Culinary Authenticity?" (Sharon Hudgins); and "Authentic? Or Just Expensive?" (John Whiting).

Colman Andrews, Editor-in-Chief of Saveur magazine, was the keynote speaker. Spiking his serious comments with humorous examples, Andrews noted that most people's sense of culinary authenticity is based on the memory of how their mother or grandmother made a particular dish in the past. But he cautioned against being hidebound by tradition. "Is the traditional the same as the authentic?" he asked. Approaching the subject from several angles, Andrews said he doesn't think someone from one region can ever truly duplicate the cuisine of another region "because we aren't of that place ourselves." If seeking authenticity in cuisine, we need to know the people, the culture, and the historical context that produced a particular dish or manner of cooking. "What I object to is the claim for authenticity when people haven't gone the extra mile to find out what it is," he said. "Cuisines are always changing," he added, "but don't make a dish out of turkey sausage, soy beans, and canola oil and call it cassoulet."

Alexandra Grigorieva from Moscow summed up many of the symposiasts' attitudes toward culinary authenticity in the conclusion of her paper about the names of certain regional dishes in Italy: "...there is no such thing as transcendental authenticity of a regional recipe—why must we be forced to choose between the 1st century version and the 21st century one...? It might be more interesting to consider the life of a traditional recipe as a series of authenticities, the older transforming itself into the newer with each new cookbook and each new person that cooks the dish."

The Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery is open to anyone who wants to attend, although registration is limited to the first 200 people who sign up. Symposiasts are invited, if they want, to present a paper relevant to that year's topic. The forthcoming 2006 symposium will focus on the subject of "Eggs" (any kind of eggs, from caviar to bird's eggs to dinosaur eggs—raw or prepared in any manner).

For more information on the Oxford Symposium, including how to purchase the published papers from past events, see http://www.oxfordsymposium.org.uk.



Sharon Hudgins (swhudgins@earthlink.net) is an award-winning cookbook author and food columnist who has presented six papers at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery.

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