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No Food for Thought: Have Academics been Served?

I know it’s supposed to be a meeting of minds, of sharing ideas, of gathering feedback on one’s research and writing, and of marvelling at one’s voice - but look - touring academics have to be fed. Depending on the type of conference and the length of it, breaks for refreshments can be welcome, productivity-boosting interludes. There’s also - and here’s the real belly of the beast - the impact of funding cuts to academia to consider. Conferences have become income-generating events, or organisers at the very least try to claw back money to complement/supplement funding provided in the hiring of venue, transport and accommodation costs for keynote speakers, publicity costs, etc.

Australian academic conference registration fees are notoriously high, averaging USD500 upwards. Until recently, the food served at Australian conferences has been generally poor, sometimes a few stale Arnott’s biscuits are thrown carelessly on a tray, and into the vicinity of a couple of urns of tea and coffee.

But perhaps I exaggerate… perhaps, because of the high registration fees now charged, lunches are more interesting and satisfying. But nothing is more satisfying than eating at Asian conferences. Invariably most meals are delicious and varied. The most memorable one I can think of was for an international graduate conference at the National University of Singapore some years ago. Morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner were all hot meals, featuring dishes from all over Asia, and no single dish was repeated throughout the three-day conference. Malaysian conference meals are just as appetising. There are exceptions to this regional rule: last July’s Association for Asian Studies-in-Asia conference held in Singapore was disappointing. Only cocktail-type finger foods were served and not very Asian ones at that.

Water supply for AHA talkfest

Water supply for AHA talkfest

So, then, perhaps conference size has to do with the quality of catering as the AAS-in-Asia attracts large numbers of participants.  Although last year’s International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS8) in Macau managed the catering rather well, culminating in a most sumptuous closing seafood banquet dinner for the approximately 1500 scholars from fifty-six countries who attended. The annual prestigious American Historical Association (acceptance rate at 50%) this month saw 6000 scholars presenting in one form or the other and venues for panels were spread over the Hilton and Sheraton hotels. And the food? Neither good nor bad as none was to be had! There was nice refreshing New York City water though! The registration fee was about half the average Australian fee. And the ridiculously reasonable rates for the four-star hotels negotiated by the AHA left us with some nice pocket money to go out on our own.  Specialists to the core, perhaps it’s better if everyone in the academia-food-supply-chain follow this example of only bothering with what they’re good at.

To be fair, the “food catering” item in a conference budget has to be pulled in this and that direction for it and the rest of the budget to be justified. Once approved, unless the academic/research assistant/event organizer takes a special interest in the menu, choices are often left to the catering company...  unless the conference is a food conference. Having been to several, they are mostly excellent. The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, held in St Catherine’s College each year, excels in this regard. Each year, the meals provided take on a specific theme. For example, last year’s theme was on Food and Markets, most of the meals were organized by Elizabeth Luard and as every year, well-known chefs were brought in to cook them. The annual symposium is generously sponsored both for young food practitioners/researchers and in food and drinks. Below is a dinner menu from last year, with dishes cooked by The Guardian’s food writer, Allegra McEvedy.

Chorizo, lomo and croquetas de bacalao

Peas, broad beans and radishes

Manaquish flatbreads

Sheep’s cheese with herbs and spices

Pig sarnie

Porchetta rolls with salsa verde

Crispy pig’s ears and crackling

Cime di rape & tallegio pizza

Strawberry, mint and hibiscus jelly cups

A still-mouth-watering memory of great conference food was the 2006 “Cookery Books as History” at the then Research Centre for The History of Food and Drink, University of Adelaide.  For me, the stand-out dish was roast chicken from Kangaroo Island. Half expecting food history to repeat itself, I was slightly disappointed that last year’s “Food Studies: A Multidisciplinary Menu” at the same university yielded no such pleasure. Every lunch came in a brown paper bag. Day one: falafel. Day two: falafel. Day three: falafel. You get the drift. Perhaps outsourcing food to third party event organizers has something to do with it? Annemarie McAllister and Billy Frank, academic hosts of the 2011 ‘Food and Drink: their Social, Political and Cultural Histories’ at the University of Central Lancashire International Conference, in Preston,UK, had a winning idea with a “preconference dinner”.  Casual Italian fare at a downtown restaurant made for a great ice-breaker.  All the other meals were carefully thought out, using local produce, and the farewell dinner showcased historic recipes.

Conference food organizers have to wrestle with the growing number of requests to cater for food allergies, taboos and doctrines along differing health, religious and philosophical lines. Some of these meals are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, kosher, halal, etc. The risk is that when these special preparations are placed on the same table as the mainstream meals, they soften get gobbled up by the masses! When I first attended North American conferences I was surprised that there was tea and coffee and pastries on arrival, each morning. I made the mistake of commenting that wow, they serve breakfast before the day’s proceedings! An American soon put me right: no, no, no, breakfast is the other thing, Americans love their carbs!

Have you any weird, wonderful food tales from conferences or organized events? Share your meals and theories!



Illustration by Nena Salobir

© 2015-2019 Cecilia Leong-Salobir.  All rights reserved.