Conference food is always a great new experience. Depending on the country you find yourself in, you may be faced with a huge variety of unfamiliar dishes, or with something completely mundane. When you just arrived and don’t yet know what to expect, it pays to have a good breakfast at your hotel or in a nearby café. Hotels are quite generic regardless of the continent; most of them today try to cater to universal tastes, so usually you can choose something simple. At one of the conferences I attended there was beer on the tables from morning till night, yes, that’s right, it was opened in the morning, poured into glasses and placed onto tables. It gradually lost its zing and became quite warm. Sweet little pies turned out to have spring green onion shoots with sugar inside. Pretty little baked triangular rolls were so spicy we had to spit them out. Naturally we all have our likes and dislikes; lots of people are allergic to specific foods while others have dietary needs. I have observed students who worked as general helpers for the organizing committee busily cut and arrange sandwiches. When I saw them carefully place the results on two huge boards with accompanying signs which said, “Meat – Take 1”, and “Veggie – Take 1”, I inquired about the arrangement. They earnestly told me that they expected vegetarians to take one sandwich from one board and meat lovers take one sandwich from the other board. Aha. About 200 very hungry participants, mostly men, rushed out at lunch break, glanced at signs, grabbed one sandwich from each board, two per person, and ran away to get tea or coffee and to settle down with their colleagues to talk. The young women stared, and then rushed to cut more sandwiches. Luckily there was enough food. Next day they simply prepared twice the number of sandwiches, both varieties. At times I have seen a plate set aside, with the sign, “For Jane/John Doe”. Nobody but the said person with special dietary needs would ever approach that.
Lunch boxes should be verboten seems to be the universal verdict. Whenever we encounter them we see lots of untouched or discarded boxes which contain those inedible plastic or cotton-wool-looking sandwiches one usually sees at airports and train stations. Sometimes lunch is nicely arranged in quaint little containers which hold UFOs, unidentifiable food objects. The best way to arrange lunch if possible is just to have some easily recognizable plain dishes with the choice of meat, fish and chicken with a large salad bowl and some soft drinks. Men also want some bread to go with their meals. There are evening receptions organized by sponsors; those can be very good or quite fascinating. A conference dinner which usually happens at the end of the busy week may be quite traditional for the country in question – or not. Last year, everybody waited till midnight for the first dish to be served while the waiters kept bringing in more and more drinks. The food was really good but one had to wait for too long. This year, to honor the scientists, the dinner included such amazing items as “Black nitrogen ice cream with grilled bacon”. I confess I observed the whole process, the liquid nitrogen container actually being brought into the dining tent and the preparation, with great interest, but I didn’t even try the resulting weird looking dish. The whole concept of having contrasting tastes in the same dish though was great.
Meals at a conference are indeed a learning experience. Just remember to have that large breakfast first, and to have a Plan B in place, in case you cannot eat any of the foods that are served!