At an elegant French restaurant in Boston last weekend, a New Orleans chef discussed with another diner -- the head of the history department at a Boston high school -- the preparation of crawfish, gumbo and alligator, and the practice of throwing gold-painted coconuts to spectators along the Mardi Gras parade route.
A place-setting away, a cafeteria manager discussed with a cooking teacher the latter's research into the concept of complementary "hot-and-cold foods," which seems to have little to do with thermal properties and much to do with Chinese and Hispanic mysticism and metaphysics.
And a little farther down along in the seating, three librarians -- from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, and the New York Academy of Medicine -- talked about De Re Culinaria, a 9th-century Latin manuscript. It is derived from a classical text believed to be the earliest cookbook of the western world, and only two copies remain: one at the New York Academy and one at the Vatican.
The dinner, held for 135, in several small banquet rooms at Maison Robert, in the Old City Hall, ended an intensive day of formal papers and workshops at Radcliffe College -- all part of the first culinary history conference to be held in the United States.
It was sponsored by Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in conjunction with the Culinary Historians of Boston, a lively, growing, 5-year-old group with a national membership devoted to food history. In all, about 200 participated in three days of activities, beginning with a Friday trip to Plimoth Plantation, a re-creation of the Mayflower colony, for a 1627 period meal. It ended Sunday morning at the Hotel Meridien in Boston with a cooking demonstration titled "Tracking Cornmeal: Three Centuries to the Present."
"It does seem extraordinarily simple -- what people 'ett' and how they prepared it," keynote speaker Alan Davidson conceded. A former British ambassador to Laos, Davidson has been described as "the dean of culinary scholarship" and "a pioneer." He is editor of the international food journal "Petits Propos Culinaires" and owner of Prospect Books, a British publishing house specializing in "cookery" and food history. He is also currently writing "The Oxford Companion to Food," to be published by Oxford University Press.
Fundamental though it is, food scholarship has become extraordinarily popular, drawing experts from nearly every discipline. Having coffee before the keynote address began, one could meet a dietician at a state school for the mentally retarded; a nurse; a food writer (for Gourmet), who is writing a culinary dictionary; as well as a translator of a 1549 Italian recipe book Banchetti (or, Banquets) by Cristofero di Messisbugo, which shows "how to entertain in a princely fashion for any occasion."
Striking the keynote for them, then, Davidson quipped, might best be done with a 15th-century Catalan ladle against an 18th-century French colander. The field is so broadly defined and scattered, because it is so new. Davidson made the point that most of the work has been done only in the last 15 years. He also warned that tasting from too many pots in one weekend might very well produce scholarly "indigestion."
At the workshops and papers delivered throughout the day, one could not help but get a case of the culinary history "bends," going so rapidly from one different aspect of the field to another. The other impression one took away is that the scholars make use of the most sophisticated technology available to get at their facts about food. Amid talk of computers, microfiche, transatlantic travel to sources -- and even radiocarbonation of seeds by food archeologists to determine a plant's true land of origin -- it seems clear that, though the field reaches back into prehistory, high-tech fuels the activities, and, in some cases, makes them possible.
A sampling of the 10 formal papers:
*George Armelagos, a University of Massachusetts anthropology professor specializing in diseases and nutrition in prehistoric and contemporary populations, gave a slide presentation, "Biological Aspects of Food Selection." While provocative magazine ads flashed on the screen, the group -- including University of Maryland undergraduate Sarah Gillies, who is in the Individual Studies Program and doing her thesis on "the history and practice of Western cookery" -- put taste papers to their tongues and heard about astronaut ice cream, primate food habits, and "the search for variety."
*Participants pondered the $9 million worth of jack o'lanterns produced yearly in Massachusetts alone ("a lost food source"); individually wrapped cheese slices for "individually minded" people; and the cultures that produce not only people but animals with a preference for certain spices (i.e., dogs-chili-Mexico, monkeys-curry-India). And how many calories go into the modern food search and how many do we get out of it? Because of the "petrochemical factor," for every 210 we put in, we only get .01 out.
*Rudolf Grewe, a PhD in philosophy from UCLA, a mathematician and the editor of a prize-winning 14th-century Catalan cookbook, is presently working in medieval Arabic culinary texts. At last weekend's meeting, however, he spoke about another project, "An Early 13th-Century Northern European Cookbook." Copies of it have been discovered in Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish, and Low German and contain 24-40 recipes, depending on the version. Each book is divided into five sections: an elaboration of walnut oil and its uses; dishes made with almonds -- almond milk, almond butter, almond cheese; salsa (sauces); custards; and "very extensive" chicken recipes.
Some recipes, Grewe pointed out, were popular into the 17th century, and "actually we had one yesterday" -- a meat-filled pastry -- at Plimoth Plantation.
Grewe conceded, however, that some recipes in the Low German version are "non-sensical," having had pages mixed up. But his work's aim is not culinary satisfaction, but historical truth.
*Karen Hess, author, along with her husband John L. Hess, of The Taste of America, is "at the very pinnacle of culinary history," according to Joyce S. Toomre, co-founder of the Culinary Historians of Boston. In her talk, "The Jonny-cake Papers and Other Tales: Problems in Culinary History," Hess stressed that a food historian, in addition to the "usual research skills," cannot do without a proper grounding in "the precepts of cooking" -- that is, "long years in the kitchen." She also stressed that certain myths have grown up around American cooking of the past. She gave as an example of error difficult to dispel the idea that jonny-cakes ("No, 'h,' please!") originated in America. "The cookery of the poor has ever-been ill-recorded," she said, referring to the cakes made of cornmeal and usually cooked on a griddle. It wasn't a Colonial invention, she maintained. Nor Native American: "If Indians fried cakes, it was a severe case of cultural contamination!" She concluded, citing her research in 17th- and 18th-century culinary texts: "The Colonists brought jonny-cakes with them!"
As keynoter Davidson self-effacingly remarked after elaborating on the addition and subtraction of recipes in editions subsequent to the original of Hannah Glasse's 1747 "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy": "What a small, what a very small scandal it is!" But as Hess said of Rhode Islander, whose jonny cakes are considered "best": "It's because they care!"
In the afternoon workshop sessions, great care about many other topics was often passionately expressed. Conferees were frustrated by the task of selecting from a huge banquet of offerings, 15 in all. A sampling:
"Nutritional Issues in Culinary History" was led by Jeanne Goldberg, coauthor with Jean Mayer of a nationally syndicated newspaper column. Until recently, Goldberg said, "nutrition wasn't the message that guided the kitchen." She suspects, however, that "hidden in history are remedies that worked."
*"Contemporary Trends in Restaurant Cuisine" were clocked by Paul Levy, the restaurant and food writer for The London Observer. He predicted that nouvelle cuisine would soon be -- indeed, was already being -- replaced by "granny food, revised." That is, "what your grandmother would have cooked had she been nutrition-minded."
*"Chinese Food: Heart, Habit, and History" is a topic researched for almost two decades by discussion leader Jacqueline Newman, a professor at Queens College, Flushing, N.Y. It was agreed that China, with 11 percent of the world's land mass and 25 percent of the world's population, should be one of the prime subjects of culinary history. Newman, who says she owns the world's largest Chinese cookbook collection (649 volumes), remarked that, in their immigrations all over the map, the world's largest ethnic group has "borrowed the foods of, but not the food cultures of other countries." They seem to say by their adaptations, "This is the way it's done!"
Newman asked the workshop participants why they had come to have an interest in Chinese cooking. The answers from all -- including a cooking teacher, an MIT student, and a Wheaton College emeritus professor of biology and ecology -- were disarmingly simple after the loftiness of most of the rest of the day's convenings: "I like to eat!"
That sentiment was echoed at the Saturday evening dinner at Maison Robert, where the diners were served an exquisite 20th-century meal, and, afterward, a fitting final tidbit for scholars: the printed word. A typed sheet gave the information that the strawberries, goat cheese, lettuce, asparagus and peas were all from Massachusetts farms, and the quail from Nantucket Island, while the oysters were from Norwalk, Conn.