In my last post I explored the language of food, the subject of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. I had been asked to participate on a panel so I began exploring the subject last summer, but I got sidetracked on the issue that I feel so strongly about—good recipe writing. As it turned out, it was not a subject addressed directly by the panelists and presenters of papers at Oxford, at least as far as I could tell (there was no way I could take in three or four sessions all running at the same time).
I also missed Simon Schama’s opening address, which from all reports was brilliant. I’m particularly sorry I didn’t hear what he had to say about the tongue as the essential organ for communication as well as the transmitter of taste. But the day before the opening session Claudia Roden and I had become hopelessly lost driving to Oxford from her house in Hempstead and we only just made it in time for a fabulous, meaty dinner drawn from Samuel Pepys’ Diaries, which included Venison and Trotter Pie, Roast Quail, A Leg of Mutton, and a Fricassee of Rabbit. This was followed by food-themed poetry readings until we finally tumbled into our beds, sated. No sooner was I soundly asleep than a screeching fire alarm went off, arousing everyone in our dormitory from bed to descend the stairs and stand shivering outside in the cold, most of us dressed only in pajamas, until the all-clear sounded. This happened four more times, leaving me so ragged that I was unable to rouse myself in time for the next morning’s opening ceremony.
When I did catch up, I was confronted with a dazzling menu of subjects to be explored, such as “Toward a Phenomenological Semiotics of Cuisine” and “Reconstructing Food History Through Linguistics” as well as more earthy topics like “Sex, Food, and Valentine’s Day” and “The Nomenclature of the Pig and Its Parts.” The panel I was on was mostly bombarded with questions about the future of food writing in our electronic world.
It was unquestionably the best food conference I have attended, with writers and students from all over. And the food was superb, each meal built on a theme culminating in a Saturday night banquet celebrating “The Language of French Gastronomy from the Raw to the Cooked,” created by Chef Raymond Blanc.
Still, I felt that there was one component missing: the idea of recipes as story-telling. I wish that Jason Epstein, the innovative editor and publisher, whose book, Eating: A Memoir, has just published been by Knopf, had been there to speak in defense of the recipe as story.
The people Jason has worked with over the years as editor—from Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Gore Vidal, and E. L. Doctorow to Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and Maida Heatter—are all blended into his culinary journey, as are the haunts of his summers in Maine growing up, his first trip to Europe on the Ile de France, the Manhattan of the fifties and the neighborhood of New York bordering on Chinatown that he lives in today. And as he stir-fries his Eggs Foo Yung, he drops fascinating bits of lore into the mix.
Who knows—maybe Jason has invented a new recipe language. Surely Eating will help to loosen us up and we may become a little wiser each time we make a dish.