THE WORST foods to try and eat at a conference (James Burford)


Given that I co-edit Conference Inference, it’s no secret that there are many things that I like about conferences: hugs with old friends, learning about new places, opportunities for intellectual stimulation, feedback on work in progress, and feeling a part of an academic community, among others. While I do enjoy events that are facilitated online, I find that there is something special about being there in the flesh, meeting people face to face.

And yet conferences, in all their embodied goodness, also facilitate opportunities for disconnection, alienation, jealousies, exhaustion and the sheer awkwardness of being a human person in a new place and/or time zone. They can be tough events, where delegates navigate sometimes complex social, political and intellectual scenes. Academic conferences are also events where the folk who we often know as (Surname, date) become corporeal creatures. These creatures might be wonderful, generous, and kind. And yet here they are, lifted off the page in their all too human form. We all know of the monsters who bump into us (or worse: see Liz Jackson’s post ‘Theorising grabs’),  spill their tea and rub it into the carpet, can’t figure out the lunch queue, talk too long or too loud, or leave dishes scattered about the place for someone else to collect, amid a wide array of other naughty things. If we are honest with ourselves, we might even find that we are these monsters sometimes too.

The visceral nature of conferences can make them awkward spaces to inhabit, particularly for those of us who find that awkwardness easily finds us. I know I am not alone in saying that I don’t always locate my most graceful self at conferences. Instead, I bumble forward trying my best not to crash into the keynote speaker. All and all, I am usually happy if I scrape through in order to confer another day.

In response to my own awkward noticings, I am starting an occasional series of posts on Conference Inference called ‘Awkward Delegate’ which is all about the ways in which conferences can be experienced as socially tough spaces. Today, I am beginning with an area close to my heart: conference food.

A couple of things at the outset: I am not allergic to any foods and don’t have any dietary restrictions, so I am already in the privileged position of knowing that nothing on the menu is likely to kill me. I also want to begin with the acknowledgement that I am also very lucky to go to conferences and have other people cook things that I can eat. I am very grateful for this work! With that said, what follows is a non-exhaustive list of some of the most trying foods to eat at a public gathering of academic peers (as determined by me).

1. The flaky pastry


Delicious, warm, irresistible flaky pastry. The perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee and a newspaper on a slow Sunday morning, right? Flaky pastry is, however, a conference nightmare. No matter how nimbly I nibble, I will later find crumbs hidden inside of my jumper.  The crumb intensiveness of these treats means that I will leave a mess of pastry in which ever location I’ve been eating. Consuming a croissant mid-conversation also involves the risk that I’ll send flecks of pastry flying in the direction of my interlocutor. If you have a beard, beware of lingering crumbs.

2. The sugar dusted (and jam filled) doughnut


The doughnut is another key generator of awkward eating experiences. This delicious treat is just too sugary to handle. If I am standing with a wobbly paper plate trying to talk to a new person, what am I supposed to do with the sticky sugary substance that coats my fingers? And then there’s the filling. I don’t want to be in a position of squirting oozy jam onto myself or anyone in proximity to me. I am sorry but doughnuts are a do not for me when it comes to conferencing.

3. The flour dusted scone or bread roll 


I think we can see a trend here? The flour dusted anything is a bad idea at conferences. I hate the sensation of dry flour touching my skin in general, so that’s one thing. Perhaps this bigger issue is: how do I eat it without making a mess? Neither I, nor anyone else, wants to be powdered by a flour bomb.

4. The over-large piece of sushi


I think this one explains itself. I am not sure why the over-large piece of sushi is often accompanied by a difficult to handle plate, chopsticks, and a difficult to manage condiments situation. I am not an octopus. I can’t stand up, eat sushi and try to be an academic human person all at once.

5. The noodle and/or the spaghetti


Don’t get me wrong, I love a noodle/spaghetti situation. But at a conference this is the worst idea. I don’t want anyone else to end up wearing my lunch.

6. The fancy conference dinner


What was on Master Chef last night? Do I really want to eat it? Hmmm – maybe not? As I wrote about in an earlier post called Academics on the dance floor: The curious practice of the conference disco, one memorable conference dinner served up something called a vanilla duck nugget. There seemed to be a number of un-eaten vanilla duck nuggets on plates at the end of dinner. 

7. The sandwich (especially when dry, over-filled, or present daily) 


Ah the sandwich. If ever there was a conference staple (in conferences in NZ, Aus and the UK anyway) it would be thee. There are, however, many things that can go wrong with a sandwich. Firstly, it could be the meal, every meal. Sandwiches can be great, but so can other things. Let’s not overdo it on the sandwiches, ok? Also can I say a big no to sandwiches which were made the night before and are dry and/or soggy. An over-stuffed sandwich is also a spillage disaster waiting to happen.

8. Meat with a bone in it


Not a fan of this in general. Especially not a fan of the sticky chicken wing which seems impossible to eat with a knife and fork and yet also is socially impossible to eat at a conference with one’s fingers. Is expecting people to stand up, talk about serious things at the same time as eating sticky chicken wings some kind of caterers’ practical joke?

9. The salad on a flimsy plate while standing situation


So often I use the occasion of someone else preparing food to force myself to actually eat vegetables. I pile my flimsy paper plate high with salads and try for minutes upon minutes to shovel things into my mouth with a wooden fork. Salad is not a standing dish.

10. The chewy lolly

I think this tweet says it all.


So, there you have it! This is a start on my list of least desired conference foods.

What are yours?

I’ll meet you in the corner of the conference sometime… eating ungracefully!

James Burford is co-editor of Conference Inference and Tweets as @jiaburford.

Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

12 thoughts on “THE WORST foods to try and eat at a conference (James Burford)”

  1. I have to say that although I love food, I am really self-conscious about eating with people I do not know well. Often I hope to listen & talk to conference members during breaks & events, & the food sort of gets in the way. You try to be attentive, but either juggling a plate, trying to give positive para-verbal whilst navigating a meal, or simply not wanting to interrupt a person’s hard-earned break throws me into awkwardness. So I find it hard to give deserving attention to all the hard work the caterers & organisers put in to produce pleasing food. I’m not anti-social, but conferences do sometimes put me on the back foot!


      1. Love it Jamie! So what actually works to eat at a conference?
        I’ll never forget the networking training we did with the young leaders and was told in no uncertain terms that u eat before u go to a networking event since eating and talking just don’t go!! I try and stick to this even if I am starving at a conference. I’ll grab one small thing, talk and nibble and then nip out for a coffee. 😊


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