Former Laureates

Alan Davidson


‘Food Culture’ was the theme of the Erasmus Prize in 2003. Its choice expresses the idea that food is an undervalued subject that can be studied from a variety of angles: historical, culinary, sociological and biological. The person who embodied this idea was the laureate Alan Davidson.

Alan Davidson was born in 1924. As an employee of the British Foreign Office, he was posted at cities in various parts of the world (The Hague, Cairo, Tunis, Brussels and Vientiane). During his years outside Britain, he began to write books about fish. His first book, Mediterranean Seafood (1972), became a classic because of its combination of biology and recipes. The hobby of writing about fish in the places where he was posted gradually became a career in food history. He was a recognized connoisseur of Laotian cuisine, but the highlight of his work is the authoritative Oxford Companion to Food. The Erasmus Prize was awarded to Davidson because his infectious enthusiasm led to his reaching a wide audience and to opening many people's eyes to the great variety in our food cultures and to the importance of food history. His message has also been communicated through the magazine Petits Propos Culinaires, which he founded together with his wife Jane, and through the conferences he initiated and organized, called the Oxford Symposia on Food History. Alan Davidson died shortly after the award ceremony in 2003.


Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows:

Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts, and to promote appreciation of these fields within society. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism, and un-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation endeavours to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means; a money prize is awarded to a person or institution under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Patron of the Foundation, has confirmed the decision of the Board of the Foundation to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2003 to Alan Davidson.

The prize is awarded to mr Davidson on the following grounds:

- By his personal approach to the study of food, Davidson has reached a wide readership and opened the eyes of many for the pluralism of our eating cultures and the importance of food history.

- Author of exceptional books on seafood, Alan Davidson combines scholarly thoroughness, erudition and an infectious enthusiasm with a lucid style of writing.

- Together with his wife Jane, Alan Davidson has founded the magazine Petits Propos Culinaires, which has become an influential source for the study of the history of food.

- By initiating, together with Theodore Zeldin, the Oxford Symposium on Food, Davidson has created an international forum for both professional and amateur food historians, thereby giving a strong stimulus to the study of food in its cultural context.

- His life work is embodied in the authoritative Oxford Companion to Food, a solid work of reference, which will be a standard for years.

- In short, through his work, Alan Davidson can be regarded as a pace-setter in the revaluation of food as a factor of cultural significance.


Delivered by A.H.G. Rinnooy Kan, chairman of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honour and a pleasure for me to address you from this chair, as I am speaking on behalf of the Patron of our Foundation, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard. We are very glad, Your Royal Highness, that you are prepared to award the Prize today, as you have done of old.

Food is a cultural phenomenon of growing importance. You can see it spreading over academic, political and cultural domains:
The Research Centre for the History of Food and Drink at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, offers on-line university study programmes leading to an MA degree in Food. The Council of Europe in Strasbourg is embarking on a publication presenting the food cultures of the 48 states party to the European Cultural Convention. The French Government is setting up an Institute for Higher Studies at Reims, where students will be trained in the arts of the table or French culinary history. Last week an international symposium on Food and Emotion in South Asian Literature was held at the University of London.

These are just a few examples that testify to the boost of interest in the history and culture of our food in recent years.

Food - ladies and gentlemen - food, food-ways, and our eating cultures, are the central themes of this year's Erasmus Prize.

'We meet the world on our plates. Every ingredient of our past and our present can be read in our recipes: our identity, our relationships with other species, our status in society, even the place of our society in the world. Food is a cultural indicator' (*).

Not only is food itself a cultural indicator, human eating behaviour at the dining table has also been considered as indicative of a certain stage of civilization. I refer to the famous work of Norbert Elias on the process of civilization, which cites a wealth of literature on eating behaviour. Curiously, it is our name-giver Erasmus, who is a valuable source for eating habits in the early sixteenth century. Although Erasmus had a refined taste for food and drink, and spoke highly of a good meal among friends, food itself was never the subject of his treatises. What we do find, however, are educative instructions for the upbringing of youths in his De civilitate morum puerilium, including instructions on table manners.

Diet and eating habits are inseparable from the rest of culture: in particular, they interact with religion, morals and medicine. People have always sought to give meaning to eating. Eating habits also connect with spiritual perceptions in eating programmes 'to feed the soul' and with such secular ideals as health, beauty and fitness. Even health-foodies - or other contemporary faddists, who eat for beauty or brainpower or sex-drive or tranquillity or spirituality - are part of the phenomenon, of the urge to ascribe meaning to eating, in this case by targeting food for transcendent effect (*).

To emphasize that we are what we eat is a cliche. But the question of what kind of food exactly influenced which part of our body remains an interesting one, especially if focused on that part of our constitution which in an evolutionary sense distinguishes us so strikingly from the apes, namely the relatively large brain. Presently, scientists are addressing the question of what role food and eating behaviour played in the evolution of the brain in early humans. An international symposium we are organising this week is focusing on this topic.

'Food - at least as much as language and religion, perhaps more so - is cultural litmus. It identifies and, therefore, necessarily, differentiates. Fellow-members of cultural communities recognize each other by what they eat'(*). Immigrant communities stick to their eating cultures and set up their own markets and shops to buy their preferred traditional food, a situation described so well by for instance Claudia Roden in her introduction to the Jewish cuisine. 'Although food fads are commonplace and advertisers can whip up a craze, food culture more usually is conservative. The obstacles to cross-cultural eating start a long way back in history, and are rooted deep in individual psychology. Personal taste is hard to modify' (*). Still, there is another side of this coin. For whereas on the one hand food culture is conservative and not so easily communicable between cultures, it is on the other hand very international. We not only eat high cuisines which call themselves 'fusion' and 'international', we also feed in a globalized world where dishes and ingredients are swapped with enthusiasm from one side of the world to the other (*). 'McDonaldization' is mirrored by world conquests which start in Italy , with pizza and pasta, in Mexico, with tacos, China, with wontons and spring rolls, and in India, with curries and poppadoms. As a matter of fact, 'there is no more intriguing problem in the history of food than that of how cultural barriers to the transmission of foods and foodways have been traversed or broken'(*). This is, by the way, an issue that will be addressed during a workshop we are organizing this afternoon.

To say that food and eating habits are converging world wide, and that consumption patterns are showing ever more similarities everywhere, is stating the obvious. Coca-cola has long been drunk everywhere in countries whose cultures are as diverse as can be. American fast food chains, led by McDonald's, have achieved an almost similar ubiquity. Some distinctive differences have even been stood on their heads: the Germans, who once consumed extraordinary quantities of meat, are now more likely to be vegetarians than the French. The same is true of the English. But even these reversals are rooted in each nation's history, and in Europe as well as elsewhere traditional differences with respect to eating behaviour have proved extremely persistent (**).

'When it comes to cooking and serving techniques and table manners, the story is the same. Traditional dining patterns are not dead and buried. Also the social function of dining is still important. Eating rituals vary widely. No matter how simple, however - a snack shared between friends, say - there is a little more ceremony, a little more conversation, a little more social exchange than one finds around a bag of popcorn in the stands of an American stadium or on the living room couch in front of television. If consumption patterns are becoming increasingly similar, substantial differences remain. The trend toward more homogeneous behaviour tends to make people react by developing a strong attachment to their own identity. Wherever an attempt has been made to normalize and universalize identities, the reaction has been strong. We see this in political events and also in connection with food. National cuisines are being rediscovered and local traditions revived. Regional cuisines are today a part of the national cultural heritage, and people are probably much more aware of them now than in the past. The food industry, responsible for the globalization of eating habits, paradoxically has been quick to seize on this trend and by packaging what used to be considered fit only for the poor as the very latest in elegant dining. In fact, insisting on regional differences and the preservation of cultural identity is not backward or reactionary. We can only enjoy such a pluriformity in food traditions and indulge in them. Let us not forget, however, that food traditions are not fixed once and for all. They are created, shaped, and defined over time as cultures interact, clash, and influence or absorb one another. Every culture is 'contaminated' by other cultures: Every 'tradition' is a child of history, and history is never static. There are no purely regional cuisines, which are unaffected by products from outside the region. Today, food and people travel more rapidly than ever before'(**). It is doing this not fast and efficiently enough to prevent hunger and starvation in parts of the world. All the more, this poses a challenge to our generation to manage the relationship between past and present, tradition and change, between the local and the global.

When we quote observations of this kind, made by distinguished professors of cultural history, and when we wish to highlight the achievements made in this field, we are fully aware, mr Davidson, that in the new appreciation of the study of food and food-ways, we are in many ways indebted to your efforts. Your books on sea-food are not the usual kitchen manuals with recipes and colour-plates. They are nowadays considered as classics of modern culinary literature, and are including catalogues of fish and shellfish, recipes drawn from your own experience and from literature, and a mass of information, presented with a sound knowledge of the different cultural contexts and a keen sense of British humour. No wonder that at present these books are being reprinted and have been translated in various languages. Your work, which was started as a fish catalogue with local names for fish in Northern Africa and which culminated in the weighty Oxford Companion to Food, has formed a major stimulant for all those who cherish a little extra interest in food, more than the average individual who only has a taste for gastronomy.

At a time, when mostly trivial and glossy nonsense was published in the field of gastronomy, the journal Petits Propos Culinaires, started by you and your wife Jane in 1979, was an innovation and an exemplary outlet for the kind of learned and agreeable writings on food and eating traditions as have become your hallmark.

Thanks to your enthusiasm, Prospect Books was founded, initially located in a broom cupboard under the staircase in your house. If you had been less naive with regard to the funds needed to keep this enterprise going, we probably wouldn't have had it. Luckily this dream has materialised in what now is a list of over 60 book titles, including facsimile reprints of early cookery books, bibliographies, studies of lesser known cuisines and the Proceedings of the Oxford Symposia on Food.

The Oxford Symposia on Food, which were co-organized by you, have been an inspiring source for scholars, publicists and food-enthusiasts from all over the world. While discussing a broad range of issues regarding food, including its history and far-reaching social implications, these meetings, which started off as informal gatherings, helped to build up an interdisciplinary community of researchers in food. By your personal approach to the study of food, at the same time serious and playful, you have been a source of inspiration for all those who regard food as their chosen perspective to the study of culture. Your wife has shared your interest to a great extent and has closely collaborated with you in this area. I therefore wish to extend my congratulations also to you, mrs Jane Davidson.

It is only fitting to end with a quote by Dan Hofstadter on the pages of the New Yorker in 1987, characterizing with a sense of awe and amazement such food specialists as yourself and those others writing in Petits Propos Culinaires as: 'Clearly these people were not cranks but benign fanatics, and engaging ones at that.' This engagement, dear mr Davidson, has earned you the Erasmus Prize and I congratulate you with it most warmly.

May I now ask the Patron, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard, and mr Alan Davidson to come forward for the presentation of the Prize.


*) F. Fernandez-Armesto, 2001. Food, a History.
**) J.L. Flandrin & M. Montanari, 1999. Food, a Culinary History.

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellency, members of the Board of the Erasmus Prize Foundation, and distinguished company here assembled,

It will come as no surprise to you to hear that the award of the Erasmus Prize 2003 constitutes for me the greatest honour which could be paid to me to mark my 30 years work in the field of food history.

Of the three main careers I have followed, that in the Royal Navy culminated in a letter of thanks from someone in the Admiralty, courteous but not exhilarating.  My career as a diplomat came to an end with another letter, again courteous and complimentary but less than exhilarating, from the Personnel Department of the Foreign Office. Now, in my third career, as a writer and publisher in the field of food history, I have done very much better. Although I have won several important literary prizes, there is nothing in my past experience even remotely comparable with the present Award. I see it as the best possible finale to three decades of diligent but enjoyable work. I say 'finale' not because I am giving up food history; it will always hold a secure place in my affections and occupy much space on my desk and bookshelves. No, the reason is rather that, as I approach my 80th birthday, my own period of pioneering work and major undertakings in this field has come to an end. Indeed, with effect from next year, such writing as I do, except for revisions and additions to The Oxford Companion to Food, will be focused on a different and more frivolous subject, namely the screwball comedy heroines of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.

Thus the honour paid to me today, for which I give heartfelt thanks to the Foundation, could not have come at a more appropriate time. The same is true if one thinks of it, as I emphatically do, as an honour paid to the whole body of food historians who have in effect been my colleagues for these 30 years. In the essay which the Foundation has kindly printed for this occasion I have sought to explain why food history has hitherto lacked the sort of academic and official recognition which it deserves. Now, by its imaginative action today, the Foundation has gone far to remedy this situation, and to invest food history with a standing and respect which it previously lacked. The effect will be lasting; and the time was ripe, for the efflorescence of food history studies in recent decades has been such as to earn recognition of the highest kind.

It is of course not just the study of food history itself which benefits, but all the numerous kinds of food studies in which so many different people are engaged. Food, if I may state the obvious, is of fundamental importance to all human beings and merits a central place in the work of biologists, nutritionists, anthropologists, sociologists, archaeologists, economists and historians - and all these without even counting the farmers, orchardists, fishermen and the billions of people for whom cooking is a daily activity. That this centrality and these connections have often been overlooked reflects a well-known human tendency: to see the trees but not the wood.

How appropriate it is that corrective action should be taken under the aegis of Erasmus, who viewed the world in wide focus and with great clarity. Mark you, this clarity may sometimes have been clouded. Much of my own writing has been about fish and seafood, and I am well aware from his colloquy 'Concerning the Eating of Fish' that he did not care for fish himself, nor wish others to eat fish. In the dialogue between a fishmonger and a butcher, which constitutes the colloquy, the butcher emerges victorious. His rhetoric is overwhelmingly powerful, as when he denounces fishmongers thus:
'If you only injured the body, this could be endured; but since different foods spoil the mind, you corrupt the very mind itself. Just gaze upon your fish-eaters; do they not look like fish, pale, stinking, stupid and mute?'

This denunciation would seem to be inexplicably extreme if one was not aware of the context (Erasmus' opposition to the fasting, fish-eating, days of the Roman Catholic Church) and of the streak of humour and humorous exaggeration which pervades the colloquy. It does not represent a real departure from Erasmus' strong belief that courtesy is necessary for effective discussion, a belief which I share.

In any case, while there are matters on which I have to differ from Erasmus, I like to think that there are several other links between us. One is that he lived for a while in the Netherlands, and so have I and my family. In retrospect, the years which we spent in The Hague seem like a Golden Age. Another is that he was and I am a Humanist. The third is perhaps not very substantial but gives me pleasure. Less than a quarter of a mile away from my home and workplace in Chelsea in London there used to be the home of the English theologian Sir Thomas More, on the bank of the river Thames. The visits which Erasmus paid to him in 1499 and in later years were of great significance for both men. It would have been very strange if they had not chosen, in a break from their spiritual discussions, to take a walk by the side of the Thames; and this walk would have brought them remarkably close to the spot where I composed this speech of thanks.

Before I finish, I wish to identify one of the good causes to which I plan or hope to devote part of the munificent prize money. This is the Sophie Coe Memorial Fund, to provide for an annual main prize and other awards for outstandingly good essays about food history. This was set up, to commemorate a much loved and remarkably gifted food historian, in 1995. It has already proved its efficacy in encouraging others, especially younger scholars, to write up the findings of their researches. My wife and I were closely involved in setting up the Fund and in ensuring that it would be administered free of cost, by volunteers, so we are especially eager to give it further support.

I conclude with a general expression of gratitude to all who have helped me and worked alongside me, including many people here present, not least my wife Jane and my daughters three. I hope that they and all the others will feel that the effulgence of the Award shines brightly on them as well as on myself.


Alan Davidson, who counted himself a Scotsman, was born in 1924. He studied Classics at Queens College Oxford and during WWII served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
He joined the Foreign Office in 1948 and was sent to various posts abroad, including Washington, The Hague, Cairo, Tunis, Brussels and Vientiane. While in Tunis in the early 1960s he wrote, to satisfy the curiosity of his American wife Jane, a booklet on the local fish and other seafood. This later (1972) became a Penguin book, Mediterranean Seafood and he tasted the pleasure of authorship. The taste was enough to persuade him, while working as British Ambassador in Laos in the mid 1970s, to write a book on Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos and to start others on Seafood of South-east Asia and North Atlantic Seafood. At this stage he decided to quit the Diplomatic Service and become a full-time writer, and publisher. The new, literary career which he began in 1967 has lasted ever since, given continuity by his painstaking composition of the Oxford Companion to Food over the twenty-one years from 1978 to 1999, but including numerous other activities, many of them sparked off by the wider interest in food and food history which work on the big book inspired. In 1979 he and his wife were among the founders of an eccentric journal of food history, PPC (Petits Propos Culinaires) which they have edited and managed from then until the last issue of the second millennium.
In 1981 Davidson was co-founder of the annual Oxford Symposia on Food History, and remained co-chairman of it, with Dr. Theodore Zeldin, until 2001.
Although he has written mainly about food, his favourite book is the novel about NATO which he wrote while working at NATO headquarters around 1970. The Foreign Office forbade publication. He had it clandestinely and anonymously printed, but recently it was published openly.
60 years after he fell under the spell of the heroines of the Hollywood screwball comedies, Alan Davidson started a series of essays in which he was to pay tribute to the beautiful, chic, witty stars of the Golden Age of cinema.
Alan Davidson died unexpectedly on 2 December 2003.

1972 Glenfiddich gold medal: Mediterranean Seafood
1979 Glenfiddich gold medal: North Atlantic Seafood
1999 Crystal Whisk Award: The Oxford Companion to Food
2000 James Beard Award: The Oxford Companion to Food

Davidson, A., Mediterranean Seafood, 1972, 1981, 1987
Davidson, A., Something Quite Big, (Samizdat version 1974), 1993
Davidson, A., Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos, 1975, 2002/3
Davidson, A., Seafood of South-East Asia, 1977, 1978
Davidson, A. and Jane Davidson, Dumas on Food, 1978, 1979, 1987
Davidson, A., North Atlantic Seafood, London 1979, 1980, 1986, 1989
Davidson, A., On Fasting and Feasting (anthology), 1988
Davidson, A. and Charlotte Knox, Seafood: A Connoisseur's Guide and Cookbook, London 1989
Davidson, A., A Kipper With My Tea: Selected Food Essays, 1989, 1999
Davidson, A. and Charlotte Knox, Seafood, London 1989
Davidson, A. and Charlotte Knox, Fruit, London 1991
Davidson, A., The Tio Pepe Guide to the Seafood of Spain & Portugal, Jerez, 1992
Davidson, A., The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999 - The Penguin Companion to Food, 2002
Davidson, A. and Helen Saberi, Trifle, 2001
Davidson, A. ed., The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy, 2002

Food Culture, aquarel Marc Mulders

The Erasmus Prize 2003 was awarded to Alan Davidson in the field of 'food culture'.