Friday, December 21, 2007

Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

Back in 1988, Dan Hofstadter published a meandering essay about the eighth (I think) meeting of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, which sounds like a great place for brainiac foodies. At that meeting, Dr. Max Lake lectured on the "resemblance between sexual smells and the smells of cheese and wine:"

I have been fortunate enough to have access to a sexual-odor library [Lake said], which, believe it or not, consists of little bottles in a laboratory. One of the most important human pheromones is isobutyraldehyde, which is the next relative in the carbon chain to the odor of bean sprouts. Great champagne has many aldehyde tones. There are also definite cheesy and sweaty notes. These middle-range fatty-acid smells characterize, in higher apes and human beings, the pheromones of the female in mid-cycle, and are also found, believe it or not, in several of the world's most delicious and expensive cheeses ...
Another lecturer, Charles Perry -- "accomplished Arabist, a former editor at Rolling Stone, and a restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times" -- lectured about "Medieval Near Eastern Rotted Condiments."
[Perry] had set out loaves of barley dough to rot in various ways, in accordance with instructions in old Arabic cookbooks. After forty days, each smelled unique. The most suitable were wrapped in grape leaves in a loosely lidded container. They were to be used with a rotted whole-wheat flat bread from a health-food store to make bunn. The loaves of barley dough "were surprisingly white throughout most of their volume, and smelled faintly but not unpleasantly of rot," he reported. "The bread had rotted vigorously, and in the end looked like a furry black kitten with pink patches." These rots Perry then ground and sifted to make the bunn, which "developed a curious richness of aroma, like that of a ripe salami, after a week," he said. "It had a loathsome appearance but was agreeable to taste, if not a delicacy by my standards." Perry concluded by wondering aloud why these condiments had disappeared. Much of his audience was apparently wondering why he had not disappeared, and one listener rose to congratulate him on his survival.
Hofstadter marvels at the adventuresome tastes of the lecturers:
Many of these foods were not only strange but also unpalatable -- even, in some cases, inedible ... Past and present symposiasts had trumpeted their consumption of -- among other items -- bear's paw, "properly rancid" yak butter, fermented fish liquid, viper in chicken broth, house cat, fox, owl, ground bats' wings, pressed lizards, pangolin, Spanish fly, and frog's ovaries, not to mention sheep's-tail fat and medieval Arab rotted-grain condiments. Was there nothing they wouldn't put in their mouths?
Apparently not.

--Quotes from Dan Hoftstadter's "Omnivores." The New Yorker, April 25, 1988.

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