For all who relish a slice of life

March 19, 2004

Academics, it seems, love a culinary adventure and will eat almost anything, as Michael North discovers.

Bert Hall will never forget nearly starving in Delaware in the US. It was 1981 and he had been invited to the conference for the Society for the History of Technology, hosted by Delaware University. "There was never enough of anything by way of catering," Hall says.

"By the second day, most of us were continuously ravenous. I recall pouring sugar from those paper packets directly into my mouth simply to have something to sustain me through the sessions. A bunch of us found an apple tree behind the parking lot. The apples were wormy, but we ate them anyway. I was reminded of a scene in one of Solzhenitsyn's novels."

Hall, of the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto, learnt an unforgettable lesson that year - "As Napoleon once remarked of an army: a conference travels on its belly."

Veteran conference organiser Sally Brown concurs. "If you get the food wrong at a conference, it will all go badly wrong," she says. Brown, now a director of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, has had so many bad experiences of other people's conference catering that she recently co-authored Essential Tips for Organising Conferences and Events .

"I could do a PhD on the £3.50 finger buffet," she says, recalling the "vestigial-looking bits of garnish", the bite-sized bhajis dripping with chip fat and - her pet hate - the deep-fried wonton. Brown is glad to say that culinary times are changing. "In the old days, people were happy with refectory food. They expect more now," she says.

Peter Taylor, head of the universities division for Sodexho, a multinational company organising conferences in 70 countries with a presence in 20 UK institutions, adds: "You have to have the right people with the right product in terms of the food, with quality rooms - en suite is a must - that people see as being commensurate with hotel standards."

Taylor says UK universities are pouring resources into accommodation and catering facilities to fully utilise campuses when the students are away - places such as York and Sheffield universities are offering sophisticated packages for academic and commercial clients.

But when asked to recall their best conference experiences, academics invariably speak of overseas trips. Steve Ley, professor of organic chemistry at Cambridge University and past president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, enthuses about dancing the samba in San Carlos in Mexico as the university's department of chemistry barbecued "pure protein". And then there were those rum-fuelled occasions in Jamaica. "I have never laughed or danced as much," he says.

Ley has tried to inject some of this style into his academic bashes at home. Having recently sold his spin-off company and reaped the rewards, he says: "I tend to be generous. I'm happy to provide a certain level of naughtiness and I like my parties to be memorable." He refers to the live music - he has even used operatic buskers from Covent Garden - that makes his parties swing.

William Herrenden-Harker, a physicist at Cardiff University, also prides himself on running quality conferences - something that he has been doing for the past 20 years. But he has been disappointed by those he has attended elsewhere in the UK. "I have been to some atrocious conferences. There's no excuse for that. People are not prepared to put the effort in. It's a lack of interest and flair."

Herrenden-Harker says a key to success - apart from attention to menu and entertainment details - is the choice of venue. He has used Cardiff's finest conference halls over the years and says his success in attracting foreign delegates has helped to promote the city and boost the profile - and even the funding - of the university.

When it comes to unusual foods, academic stomachs appear to be made of iron. "I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said that academics will eat the bark off the trees," says Steen Willadsen, an embryologist who researched at Cambridge for 12 years before moving to the US.

Willadsen provides the most striking evidence that academics are prepared to eat almost anything. Back in 1985, he had been working on animal chimeras and had bred a sheep with cow spots.

"We wanted to find out whether it had any signs of having cow cells in its organs, so when it was several years old I killed it. And since I killed it, I thought I might as well eat it." He and his colleagues barbecued the beast.

Intellect, it seems, feeds culinary adventure. But when asked what she intends to serve at a conference on poetry and sexuality at Stirling University this summer, lecturer Glennis Byron says: "I'm not planning a diet of aphrodisiacs. Given the nature of some of the papers, I should probably give them a dose of saltpeter." Conferences, Issue No.1
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