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Brain Food

Recently I’ve been mildly obsessed with Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them (2011). It’s a collection of essays about Russian literature and her experiences as a PhD student at Stanford. In the first chapter, ‘Babel in California,’ Batuman describes a conference at Stanford, dedicated to the analysis of the work of Isaak Babel. Like so many academic conferences, it is simultaneously enlightening and farcical.

As is frequently the case, things come to a head at the conference dinner – an event to which everyone looks forward, but which is inevitably tense and faintly embarrassing. The combination of socially inept academics and indifferent food is usually disastrous.

In Batuman’s essay, the dinner begins badly when the conference organiser realises that he’d forgotten to invite the graduate students who, in the strange hierarchical world of universities, had assumed that, in the absence of a formal invitation, they were not adequately important to attend the formal dinner. Things go downhill from here: Babel’s elderly, cantankerous daughter picks a fight first with a biographer of her father, and then with her half-sister; and this is followed by a magnificently well-described display of scholarly one-upmanship:

‘So,’ Platt said to Freidin, as the waiters were bringing out the entrees. ‘I hear that Slavic department enrolments are declining in the United States.

‘Oh, do you? Well, you’re probably right.’

‘Do you notice a decline here at Stanford?’

‘I’d say we’ve had a pretty fair enrolment the past few years.’

‘What about graduate students – do you have many graduate students? I have somehow not seen your students.’

‘Here is Elif,’ said Freidin. ‘She is one of our graduate students.’

Platt peered at me over the rims of his glasses for several seconds, then turned back to Freidin. ‘Yes – so. I see you have one specimen. Are there many others?’

By this point we had all been served some cutlets swimming in a sea of butter. These cutlets appeared to depress everyone. The Hungarian scholar even sent hers back, with detailed instructions. It reappeared a few minutes later, with no modification visible to the naked eye.

I remember conferences as much for their academic usefulness, as their food: like the conference I went to in Sweden, where at one lunch we had wild salmon with a lemon butter sauce, and the most delicious potatoes I had ever eaten. (This made up for the fact that the only dish I could identify on Swedish menus was a kind of prawn-mayonnaise on a baked potato. I ate this six times over three days.) Although that conference’s formal dinner – held, inexplicably, in a cavernous, abandoned factory which could, conceivably, have doubled as a murder scene in an episode of Wallander – served only pork for the main course, much to the dismay of several Jewish, Muslim, and, indeed, vegetarian diners.

And then there was the conference in Pretoria, where the same chicken was served over three lunches: first, roasted with undercooked potatoes and overcooked peas; then shredded and turned into pie; and finally with the pastry crust scraped off and stock added, as soup for the final day. It was inedibly tough on all three occasions.

During my first conference in the US – in Milwaukee before it was hip – we had doughnut holes for breakfast. I thought that this was an elaborate joke about the fact that there would be no breakfast – doughnuts are round, I reasoned, so a doughnut hole would be nothing but air – only to discover that they were mini-doughnuts. Delightful, but the sugar high they caused was not helpful during the day’s first session on childhood, death, and the Japanese experience of nuclear Armageddon.

The food served at conferences says as much about the state of academia as the papers presented during the sessions and the conversations which follow. I think of the mock turtle soup, quail, and crème de menthe jelly I ate after a conference at an Oxford college shortly before the credit crunch; and the spartan buffet which took the place of the formal dinner at a conference in New York last year.

I know I’m not the only academic to be interested in what we eat at conferences and seminars. It might have something to do with the fact that so many academics spend long periods of time living in institutions – no, not those kinds of institutions, and I can see you giggling at the back – where the food isn’t all that great. And we tend not to have terribly much money as students, so the habits of frugality – which appreciate any free meal – are ingrained early on.

But, more seriously, given the amount of concentration that proper engagement with a series of papers requires, having a break with tea and biscuits helps to refresh both the body and the mind. These events are also fairly formal, and pouring coffee and helping oneself and others to snacks, relaxes the atmosphere. At a workshop in London towards the end of my PhD, watching a collection of very senior and distinguished historians solemnly passing around an enormous plastic bowl of crisps somehow made presenting my paper – finished at three o’clock that morning – considerably less daunting.

I think that the really serious work of academia happens when we’re not really thinking about our research: when we’re eating and chatting about other things. Formal dinners can be appalling, but they can also be incredibly useful: as places to exchange ideas and to begin new projects. Virginia Woolf was particularly aware of this, and she compared two university meals in A Room of One’s Own – one at a men’s only college, and the other at one for women. At the former:

lunch…began with soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe. After that came the partridges, but if this suggests a couple of bald, brown birds on a plate you are mistaken. The partridges, many and various, came with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent. And no sooner had the roast and its retinue been done with than the silent servingman, the Beadle himself perhaps in a milder manifestation, set before us, wreathed in napkins, a confection which rose all sugar from the waves. To call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult.


Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself. We are all going to heaven….

Dinner at the women’s college was less inspiring:

Here was the soup. It was a plain gravy soup. There was nothing to stir the fancy in that. One could have seen through the transparent liquid any pattern that there might have been on the plate itself. But there was no pattern. The plate was plain. Next came beef with its attendant greens and potatoes – a homely trinity, suggesting the rumps of cattle in a muddy market, and sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge, and bargaining and cheapening and women with string bags on Monday morning. There was no reason to complain of human nature’s daily food, seeing that the supply was sufficient and coal-miners doubtless were sitting down to less. Prunes and custard followed. … Biscuits and cheese came next, and here the water-jug was liberally passed round, for it is the nature of biscuits to be dry, and these were biscuits to the core. That was all. The meal was over. Everybody scraped their chairs back; the swing-doors swung violently to and fro; soon the hall was emptied of every sign of food and made ready no doubt for breakfast next morning.

She concluded:

a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes. We are all PROBABLY going to heaven… – that is the dubious and qualifying state of mind that beef and prunes at the end of the day’s work breed between them.

Woolf makes an important point – even if one of the most useful conversations I had during my PhD was over frittata which had somehow turned blue. Eating – and eating well – can facilitate conversation and thought. At Birkbeck, where I studied towards my PhD, all undergraduate teaching is done at night, and the university provides not only an excellent bar, but also a canteen which serves really good food. After a long day’s work, students can think themselves into their studies over dinner before class – and then consider and discuss what they’ve learned over a pint afterwards. In an article about his new restaurant, Fitzbillies, Tim Hayward suggests that the reason for Cambridge‘s dearth of decent places to eat is because the university offers the best dinners.

One of the most significant discoveries of the twentieth-century was made, allegedly, over a beer. Francis Watson and James Crick met for drinks at the Eagle Pub early in 1953, and from that conversation they arrived at the conclusion that DNA is a double helix. Of course, it’s likely that the story is apocryphal, but the point is that it’s been so well remembered: that this story of two scientists meeting in a pub and coming to an earth-shattering realisation resonates with other academics.

We like to think of ourselves as essentially solitary creatures, and it’s certainly true that academics – probably more than any other profession – need quiet and solitude in order to produce the masses of research expected of us. But this work can’t be done in a vacuum – without an awareness of what others are doing and thinking. Academia is, in fact, a conversation with both the living and the dead. And the best way of meeting with the living, is over dinner.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. lizemarievanderwatt #

    I soooo agree! I am Sweden at the moment, having conversations with some of the best people in my field, largely because of a conversation over a glass of terrible wine in DC. The good food at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (or Snacking or Salads) is also the conversation starter whenever I meet someone who has been there.

    April 29, 2012
    • Thanks! And DAMN! How could I have forgotten the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Snacking?

      April 29, 2012
  2. Brilliantly put, as usual — and you have me agreeing with Virginia Woolf, which doesn’t normally happen. I found that the best conversations at Birkbeck invariably involved that Italian restaurant around the corner off of Malet Street, pots of wine, and spaghetti carbonara. At my latest conference in NOLA, the times I despaired the most were when food could not be found in between paper sessions — in New Orleans! — and the best was an evening of beer, cheesy-bacon-flecked potato skins, and pithy conversation with the other Irish scholars while we sat on a patio overlooking the Mississippi.

    And now I’m really hungry…

    April 30, 2012
    • Thanks! And hurrah for making you hungry.

      You know, I thought of you and the strangely food-free NOLA conference (although perhaps it was an attempt to recreate the feeling of starvation?) as I posted this. But, more to the point in terms of food, academia, and the Irish, we still need to address the issue of academics and booze.

      April 30, 2012
  3. Thanks for an enjoyable and well written piece.

    May 1, 2012

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