The recent controversy over whether Somerville was right to remove octopus from their formal menu highlights the persistence of a lack of understanding of how it feels to come to Oxford for someone from a working-class background.
As someone from a council street in Belfast who has tried some of the more unusual seafoods, I welcome the Somerville principal’s decision; and I’d say if you are an Oxford student finding yourself outraged by the fact octopus has been taken off your formal menu, you might want to re-evaluate your priorities.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with eating octopus, as far as I’m aware there are no ethical issues beyond the usual for any meat, and branding foods as “too posh” misses the issue here.
I would, in fact, quite like to try octopus after hearing about this mini-scandal, but I’m somewhat glad that it wasn’t on the menu for my freshers formal.
Coming to Oxford is, for most, a disorienting experience filled with novelty, much of which is exciting, some of which is stressful and takes a while to adjust to, and a little of which is just unnecessary. So why make that any harder than it already is?
Having a plate of octopus – a food I don’t think any half-educated person should need to have pointed out is not a staple of the British working class – set down in front of you at your first formal dinner at Oxford firmly joins knowing which type of gown to buy in the latter category.
For many students at Oxford formal dinner, with its candelabras and three courses, may be at least a somewhat familiar experience, and a great part of Oxford is that formals are, for the most part, very cheap and accessible.
This means that whatever students have (or have not) experienced at home becomes less important.
We should recognise, however, that millions of people in the UK live in poverty, meaning going out for a meal is a rare occurrence for huge swathes of our country; and when it does happen it’s Wagamama or TGI Friday’s, not Somerville for some cephalopod.
Inevitably, then, to make Oxford more accessible to all sections of society we must realise this and alter our expectations.
The ability of any student to feel that they fit in here is more important than scolding them for a lack of adventurous tastes in seafood, and to not recognise that fact is the epitome of middle-class privilege.
Octopus terrine. A week ago, I’d never heard of it. Even now I’m not wholly sure what it is.
And yet its supposed abolition from the menus at Somerville College has been talked about in the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, and on BBC Online. We have found ourselves in the midst of a manufactured controversy that should never have gotten beyond the pages of the student papers or the com- ment threads of Oxfess.
Believe it or not, octopuses do not feature heavily in Oxford’s Access and Participation Plan for the coming year. If you read Baroness Royall’s original blog post, she mentioned the ‘bemusement’ of one Somervillian at being served what I gather is some kind of pasted octopus.
Bemusement was the emotional trigger of all this fuss. Baroness Royall’s heart is in the right place and I applaud all those working to make Oxford a more comfortable place for students that do not fit the traditional Oxford mould.
However, access isn’t about removing and hiding Oxford’s various curiosities it’s about making them less mysterious. Indeed, it’s those very curiosities that appeal to many students here.
Students from less advantaged backgrounds, including myself, go to university expecting to try new things.
We expect and welcome change and challenge. We are not afraid of the odd oddity. We are not afraid to stand up and demand that changes be made. And we are not afraid of octopus terrine.
After all, there are far stranger things in this city. And, for that matter, far greater impediments to access.
The media furore around things like this do far more harm than good.
It’s bad enough feeling like a fish out of water without being patronised as well. I am of course sympathetic to the fact that in a place as bizarre as Oxford there is no reason to make it any stranger.
I also empathise with any student who’s been embarrassed in a new situation. I lurched from disaster to disaster in first year. But there’s a first time for everything and university is the place to discover new things. If not now, then when?
Of course we find it comforting to eat food that reminds us of home. But we don’t need to eat such food exclusively to feel comfortable, and we don’t need to be patronised by those who feel we can’t handle the shock of octupus terrine.
We would quickly come to regret it if colleges decided to serve fish finger sandwiches every dinner time in a the name of comfort.