Despite my enthusiasm for history and snacking, it’s taken me some time on the conference-going circuit to figure out how to use this knowledge to enjoy eating and drinking at conferences. On one introverted conference night, I was congratulating myself in my hotel room for acquiring Chinese takeout and a bottle of wine (for my weekend stay) before I realized I didn’t have a corkscrew. Cue a YouTube bender for tips on cork removal without a corkscrew, an unsuccessful ten minutes of putting my unopened bottle in a shoe and tapping the shoe surreptitiously against an outside-facing wall, and a night of Chinese food, and no wine.
It will probably not surprise you to learn that I have opinions about strategies for feeding yourself at a conference. I won’t be at the AHA this year, but I hope that if you are, these opinions help you eat well. Early on, I didn’t know to make and freeze food for the day I returned from a workshop; now I keep a few meals on standby for the week before I leave, when I make time to set aside meals as gifts to my future self.
So, there are some things you can do to prepare for your return home—when unanswered emails and the shift back into teaching leave little room to cook—but there are also things that conference hosts and attendees can do to improve their eating experiences. Hopefully your conference organizers care a little bit about food, and have given attendees a preliminary list of nearby restaurants. This tactic is a good place to start, but you can also do your own research if you want to tailor things more closely to your personal food preferences. I’m a big proponent of finding that happy medium between researching a place to death, and embracing spontaneity when you walk by a restaurant, and there are a ton of happy-looking people sitting inside it.
When I’m headed to a conference in the U.S., Yelp is my go-to site and app of choice to narrow down my choices. I find some Yelp reviews less than helpful (I skip over the ones, for example, that begin with “This was my first time trying…”). With the judicious use of Yelp’s filters, you can find a place to eat that is within a certain distance, open at a certain time, good for groups, gluten-free, vegetarian- or vegan-friendly, and willing to accept credit cards. If you’re planning for a large group of people, you can also filter to see whether you can make an online reservation. It’s a little harder to search for places in the UK, where most people seem to rely on Tripadvisor. I find the reviews are just as helpful, but harder to search through because TripAdvisor doesn’t let you filter much. In some big cities in the UK, Yelp has enough reviews on its site to get by.
You can also turn to twitter for food suggestions. I didn’t see this at the American Historical Association’s conference in Denver (the last AHA I attended), which did have some session-specific tweets, but conference-goers this year could think about tweeting the conference hashtag with an additional food hashtag. Savvy restaurants may even be using the conference hashtag around lunchtime to tweet food photos at you, as they did during the AHA conference.
Beyond restaurants, there are other things to do to expand your food choices. High up on my list is staying at an Airbnb rather than the conference hotel. I like doing this if I’m traveling with someone (I don’t love the idea of staying at an Airbnb by myself when traveling as a solo female traveler). Often Airbnb is cheaper than the conference hotel, and you can usually find an apartment with several bedrooms, which makes splitting it even more financially strategic. I like this option because it usually provide you with a fridge, for leftovers, and the option to cook simple meals if the kitchen setup is good.
And with a kitchen, a whole additional array of eating options are yours. As a conference-goer who likes her alone time, I appreciate the fact that having a kitchen and a fridge widen my food choices. I can order in or get takeout. It’s always useful to know which sites aggregate food delivery options in your area. GrubHub and Seamless are good in the US, and I use JustEat and Deliveroo in the U.K. Most of these sites have become savvy enough to accept debit card payments from different countries—just make sure you’ve set up a travel alert on your cards before you leave for the conference. Most of them also offer you the option of just paying with cash. Regardless of how you pay, it’s nice to have some cash on hand for tips, as it’s likelier that your delivery person will get to keep them.
If, like me, you often find it relaxing to cook and want to do it at a conference, there are a few simple snacks you can make in most kitchens. Don’t discount the appeal of scrambled eggs; most kitchens will have a nonstick pan, salt, and pepper, so all you’ll need to buy are eggs and butter. You can buy bread so that you can make toast in the kitchen’s toaster or oven. You can buy some fruit and peanut butter, and keep the fruit ready to eat. Getting your caffeine fix, incidentally, is also probably easier with your own kitchen, especially if it comes with a coffeemaker.
Conferences can be rough, especially for those of us coming from different countries and on different time zones (not to mention on the job market). Being able to order in or cook gives you a little extra time to recharge. For those of you on the market, I wish you luck, calm, and a whole lot of chocolate.