OXFORD, England — 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 \o7 is\f7 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?