Wrapped and stuffed was the theme at this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery earlier this month in England. The 31-year-old gathering of food historians, writers, anthropologists and scientists meets each year at St. Catherine’s College at Oxford to exchange ideas radiating from a central topic. The symposium is intended to ignite discussion, spur debate and contribute to a vast collection of compelling papers authored over the course of three decades by some of the food industry’s most respected scholars.
But the Oxford Symposium is not exclusively an academic pursuit. Stitched into three days of presentations, tastings and roundtable discussions are sumptuous banquets meticulously planned and brilliantly executed, showcasing ingredients from countries around the world. This year’s lineup included a Gaziantep Turkish feast hosted by writer Anissa Helou and chef Aylin Oney Tan; Scottish chef Rowley Leigh’s supper of phyllo-wrapped langoustines, saddle of lamb Wellington and a garnet-hued summer pudding of fresh berries and cream; a German sausage fest comprised of artisanal sausages, freshly grated horseradish and an abundance of beer; and an extravaganza featuring an eye-popping assortment of sandwiches accompanied by a ginger and lemon wheat beer brewed especially for the symposium.
The inevitable “What does mummia taste and smell like?” question was eventually asked.
It’s not just the banquets that sate the appetite at the conference. To mark the 150th anniversary of Alice In Wonderland, this year’s gathering was kicked off by the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a costumed affair featuring a surreal fete of jellyfish moulds, rainbow colored macarons and spiky hedgehog buns. The first evening concluded with a culinary-themed poetry slam featuring an ode to haggis complete with the haggis itself in all its offal glory.
Lest you begin to think you are at some sort of fantastical food orgy without end, between all the haggis, jellyfish and pudding gorging are the presentations themselves. Each one this year was somehow related to the wrapped and stuffed theme, but the topics varied wildly. Some presenters took a literal approach to wrapped and stuffed, such as writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s analysis of the Chinese dumpling manti. The Australian writer Barbara Santich discussed the traditional Aboriginal cooking method of wrapping food in a tree’s “paper-bark” before cooking. Academic Jackie Rohel, who won this year’s Cherwell Prize, discussed the stimulant paan, an aromatic concoction of betel-leaf wrapped spices, syrups and nuts enjoyed throughout Indian communities around the world.
Other presenters took a more abstract approach to the theme, as they analyzed the concept’s role in society, communities and our own bodies. Keynote speaker David Thompson, the chef of Bangkok and London’s Nahm, analyzed the symbolism attached to the meticulously wrapped and stuffed foods of Thailand. His sentiment, “Food improves the karmic allotment of the soul,” started the symposium off on a high-note. Academic Emma-Jayne Abbots from the University of London discussed the compulsion we sometimes have to stuff others with food, such as a parent forcing their children to eat every last morsel before leaving the table or a host over-stuffing their dinner guests. She said that this act is often more than just a physical one, symbolizing our need for control and even domination.
One of the liveliest sessions followed academic Mike Goodman’s discussion of the power of the supermarket in our society. He explained that after Margaret Thatcher deregulated supermarkets in the United Kingdom, the companies realized that they needed to police themselves regarding food safety. As a result, they were able to dictate how food safety is defined; wrapped up in this freedom is the invisible power they now yield in our food system and in our lives. He poignantly explained, “Wrapping can reveal as well as conceal, and it is usually doing both at the same time.”
Benedict Reade, head of culinary research and development at Noma’s Nordic Food Lab, dialed back the theme’s abstraction with his presentation on bog butter. He said that because butter used to be a valuable commodity in many northern countries, it was sometimes buried in bogs whose chemical composition would preserve it indefinitely. As Reade explained that the oldest recorded evidence of bog butter was a still-edible 5,000-year-old specimen, Nordic Food Lab’s Mark Emil Hermansen distributed a sample the team had bog-aged for several months in a birch bark container in northern Sweden. Its funky, manure-laced aroma and earthy flavor was certainly a challenge for the palate, but the tawny butter had nothing on arguably the most bizarre session of the symposium.
Writer Janet Clarkson and scientist Len Fisher’s presentation “All Wrapped Up: A History of Mummy Eating” spurred one audience member to ask midway through the discussion if it was a joke. But Clarkson and Fisher assured attendees that it was not. They explained that in the 18th and 19th centuries, Egyptian pyramid excavations induced a collective mummy fever throughout England that raged on for decades. Mummy powder, or mummia, was considered the super food of the era and was prescribed by pharmacists for endless ailments including broken bones, pestilence and “flux of the semen and night pollutions.” And not all mummies were the same. Some recipes prescribed using a “lusty mummy” and others called for a mummy whose records indicated the person experienced sudden death since the life force would have been more effectively captured during the mummification process. Someone asked if consuming mummy was considered a form of cannibalism? Clarkson assured the audience that it was not. She equated mummia consumption to a blood transfusion, saying that both acts are simply an ingestion of life’s essence.
The inevitable “What does mummia taste and smell like?” question was eventually asked. Clarkson explained that the highest quality mummia smelled just like a sweet and spicy minced fruit pie. So transfixed were attendees by her presentation, no one noticed that Fisher had quietly disappeared behind a podium until he emerged wrapped in cloth rags. Properly mummified, he sprinkled an ominous black powder into rows and rows of glasses filled with white wine. It was mummia, easily the most peculiar tasting offered at this year’s conference. Sipping mummy powder diluted in wine affirmed once again that the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery is one of the culinary industry’s most extraordinary, surreal and informative annual gatherings; a celebration of history, cuisine and sometimes, even mummies.