PIETER AERTSEN Butcher's Stal 1551

The Oxford Symposium Focus on Offal

This year, the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery focuses on offal – loved by gourmets and hated by gourmands

French Andouillette stuffed with offal

St. Catherine’s College
Manor Road, Oxford, OX1 3UJ, United Kingdom
08.07.2016 – 10.07.2016

Offal can mean many things. It does not just refer to organ meats but to the manifold ways in which certain foods may be rejected and despised (‘awful offal’!); or reclaimed and loved. There can be vegetable offal, in the form of the ‘ugly’ vegetables deemed too imperfect for supermarkets to sell. We invite papers that embrace the subject of offal from a wide and imaginative perspective.

The dictionary definition of offal (in the O.E.D.) carries several distinct concepts. The most commonly understood is offal as organ meats and entrails: liver, kidneys, heart, and so on. Offal cuisine around the world is a rich subject to explore, with many iconic dishes such as the pig’s feet cooked in Les Halles in Paris. In Rome, many favourite offal dishes were born in the Testaccio district, near slaughterhouses where the rejects (in slaughterhouse jargon il quinto quarto, ‘the fifth quarter’, of the animal) were used up. In Spain the church did not consider offal to be meat so allowed it during Lent and other meatless days. Papers might wish to consider blood and bones, such as the famous marrow-bone with parsley cooked by Fergus Henderson, pioneer of ‘Nose to Tail’ cookery. You may also find traces of offal in surprising places: offal may be a setting agent (calf’s foot jelly) or a processing aid (isinglass).

Call for Papers

Beyond cuisine, offal invites consideration from a cultural or anthropological perspective. More than other forms of meat, offal has inspired magical beliefs about the effects it may have on the eater. There is an idea in many cultures that eating brains will make you clever. The converse of this is that offal may be avoided because – unlike other meats, whose animal nature is generally disguised through cooking – it reminds us too vividly of our own body parts.

Papers might also wish to bear in mind some other meanings of offal. It can refer to ‘the rejected’ or the ‘parts of the animal deemed unfit for consumption’. And it can mean ‘dregs’ or ‘scum’. This raises interesting questions about food taboos and prejudices. How do we decide which foods to eat and which to place beyond the pale? Are vegan fake meats a kind of offal? And does the term offal include the in vitro hamburgers that scientists are now developing?

A further meaning of offal is rubbish or refuse; and oddments of small cheap fish caught in the nets along with the main catch. This opens up many avenues of research into food sustainability and waste. How do we rescue nutritious foods that have been treated as rubbish? Food Banks around the world are reclaiming perfectly edible discarded food and redistributing it to the hungry. Themes might include food coops and other social initiatives; ways in which the industrial food supply deals with rubbish; sustainable food policy; new technologies to manage waste.

Paper-proposers are asked to consider some of the manifold meanings of offal.

Anyone interested in presenting a paper at the 2016 Symposium should submit a proposal of 500-1000 words by 20 January 2016 to Mark McWilliams at editor@oxfordsymposium.org.uk. For more information, please see Giving a Paper.

The Oxford Symposium

The Oxford Symposium was originally founded and co-chaired by Alan Davidson, pre-eminent food historian and author of The Oxford Companion to Food and Dr Theodore Zeldin, the celebrated social historian of France.

The Symposium had its origin in seminars sponsored by Zeldin and conducted by Davidson when he was an Alistair Horne Fellow at St. Anthony’s for the academic year of 1978-79. Zeldin had arranged the fellowship for Davidson, against a background of official scepticism, and even some outright opposition to the idea that Davidson’s proposed field of research–cience in the Kitchen from an historical perspective—was a suitable subject for Oxford University. In early 1979, at Zeldin’s prompting, a series of three meetings was held.