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Alan Davidson

Jim Poris - March 2000

Food Arts presents the March 2000 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Alan Davidson, the British diplomat turned food encyclopedist/historian with a bent for the piscatorial world and a comprehensive appreciation of fruit. Davidson has penned five surveys of seafood of various parts of the world—most notably Mediterranean Seafood (1972) and and North Atlantic Seafood (1979)—and co-founded the food history journal Petit Propos Culinaires and the annual conclave of food historians called the Oxford Food Symposium. Late last year, his mammoth A-to-Z tome, The Oxford Companion to Food, was spanked to life after a 20-year labor. Filled with entries of wit and breadth, the encyclopedia's bibliography alone makes it indispensable.

"Since the 1970s, I've been involved in creating a framework for food history studies, particularly in Britain," says the 75-year-old Davidson. "The combination of the journal, the Oxford Symposium, and The Oxford Companion, when all stacked together, is certainly a big resource encouraging people to work in the field." Despite the burgeoning interest in all things culinary, Davidson notes, "food history, which you would think of as fundamental, has been seen as overlapping with disciplines like general history, economics, botany, chemistry, and anthropology. It's not been studied under and overarching structure labeled 'food history.'"

Since so many self-styled food historians are amateurs working outside formal academic boundaries, Davidson started the tri-annual Petti Propos Culinaires in 1979 (along with the late Richard Olney and Elizabeth David) as a "place for them to share and exchange information." The Oxford Symposium, founded in 1981, convenes over a September weekend at St. Antony's College and serves a similar purpose. "Oxford is definitely not an academic meeting," Davidson insists. "Indeed, there's always a proportion who have no credentials whatsoever—they're just good cooks who know about the history of food."

Davidson could never have imagined the food world would become his métier, certainly not when he turned himself from World War II naval officer into career diplomat, with a final posting as the British ambassador to Laos. The latter experience led him to write Fish and Fish Dishes (1975) and Seafood of South-East Asia (1977) and edit Traditional Recipes of Laos, a manuscript of recipes by Phia Sing, the Lao royal chef during the middle decades of the 20th century. During an earlier posting in Tunisia, Davidson compiled a mimeographed booklet that deciphered the names and physical descriptions of the seafood English-speakers were having such a difficult time buying in the Tunis markets. That modest effort became—with the help of Elizabeth David's publishing connections—in expanded form, Davidson's first book, Mediterranean Seafood. And on he went, into a career, he says, as "that fish man."

The rest is food history.