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What's Cooking? North American Culinary Writing Awards

by Maureen O'Connor

*Originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of RA News.*

The three major culinary-writing awards in North America are the James Beard AwardsTaste Canada —The Food-Writing Awards, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Awards. The books awarded prizes by each of these groups cover an eclectic range of culinary and narrative writing.

The James Beard Foundation began when Beard's friends and colleagues, led by Peter Kump, responded to a call from Julia Child to preserve his house after his death. His house had been a landmark gathering place for authors, chefs, students, and other culinary professionals. In preserving Beard's home, Peter Kump and his colleagues set in motion an organization whose mission "is to celebrate, nurture, and honor America's diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire."

One of those multi-faceted programs is the James Beard Awards, established in 1990. Apart from books, the awards recognize Broadcast Media, Journalism, Design and Graphics, Restaurants and Chefs, Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America, Lifetime Achievement and Humanitarian of the Year. The book awards themselves had been in existence since 1966, sponsored by different companies, and then integrated into the James Beard Foundation Awards.

The first awards consisted of only four categories: Baking & Desserts, International, Best Food Photography, and Techniques. As the awards evolve, and depending on the number of titles published in any one category in any one year, the categories and the focus can be quite fluid. Take a look at some of the categories awarded in 2013.

Over the last three years, the James Beard Foundation has awarded first prize in Writing and Literature to two memoirs and one social narrative.

  • In 2013 the award went to Marcus Samuelsson, author of Yes, Chef: A Memoir. (This memoir has also won the top IACP prize for Literary Food Writing in 2013.) Samuelsson, an Ethiopian adopted by a Swedish couple, has a very successful career in the United States as chef and restaurateur (Red Rooster, Harlem). In fact, in 2003 he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York City.
  • Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and restaurateur (Prune in New York City) won the James Beard Award for Writing and Literature for her memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef in 2012. Given her M.F.A. in fiction writing, Hamilton's memoir will stand above many others for its literary skill, in addition to the lure of her story.
  • 2011 saw a different kind of winner in this competition: Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg. His look at the international fisheries market and four endangered wild fish -- tuna, cod, sea bass, and salmon -- provides a cautionary tale for how the world must proceed if we want to sustain a healthy supply of wild fish.

The International Association of Culinary Professionals, established in 1978, had its beginning in the Association of Cooking Schools. The vision of the current IACP, founded by Julia Child, Anne Willan, and Jacques Pépin, is "to unite, inspire, and celebrate the professional culinary community worldwide." On their website, the IACP offers an oral history, edited by Neil L. Coletta, featuring anecdotes from founding and current members. It provides a history of the IACP's first quarter-centuryas well as an overview of foodways, ingredients, and processes over the same period of time.

Like the James Beard Foundation, the IACP has a number of programs for its members, one of which is its annual awards. Book-award prizes have been presented to culinary writers since 1995, with Literary Food Writing appearing since the inception of the awards. In 2010, the association introduced Culinary History as another creative-narrative category and then added Culinary Travel in 2012.

With awards conferred in three categories of narrative writing, the IACP offers a varied selection of titles.

  • The 2013 winner of the Culinary Travel award is Canadian Naomi Duguid's Burma: Rivers of Flavor, which has also been short listed for the Taste Canada award for Regional/Cultural Cookbook. More than a cookbook, however,Burma takes the reader on a journey to that little-known locale and reveals the food culture of a country that is just now opening itself globally.
  • Illustrating the eclectic nature of culinary writing is The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook, which won this year's Culinary History award. A project taken on by Anne Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, cookbook collectors both, this book offers a history of both food and the books that made that food more readily available for others.
  • As mentioned above, the 2013 IACP Literary Food Writing award winner, Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef,also won the James Beard Foundation Award for Writing and Literature.
  • The 2012 IACP Award for Literary Food Writing was given to Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First, an exploration of today's preoccupation with food, offering a historical perspective on the trends and fads in eating, reflecting on how attitudes change with the times.
  • A very different historical perspective is offered in the winner of the 2012 Culinary History prize: High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America by Jessica B. Harris. In offering a history of African-American food traditions, Harris discusses what she sees as two parallel tastes in African-American cooking: the one that has its origins in a life in slavery -- chitterlings and "a mess of greens," and the one that has its origins not only in the kitchens of the plantation owners with their sumptuous spreads, but also in the catering businesses in the North.
  • The third winner in 2012, this time in the category of Culinary Travel, was Christine Manfield's Tasting India, a regional look at the foodways of India, introducing the reader to both the country and its food. The book also includes an encyclopedic array of information on the equipment, the spices, and other ingredients used in Indian cooking.

Taste Canada —The Food Writing Awards also developed from an earlier program, the Canadian Culinary Book Awards. These earlier awards were established and administered by Cuisine Canada, an organization formed in 1994 by a small group of leading culinary professionals interested in promoting Canadian food and beverages. The philosophy of the group was to encourage the promotion and celebration of Canada's regional foods, stories, and culinary history. Four years later, Cuisine Canada launched the Canadian Culinary Book Awards, to support and promote Canadian food writers and their publishers. The initial awards were given in one category only -- Cookbooks, but for books published in both English and French. A second category, Special Interest Cookbooks, was added, and then a third, Canadian Food Culture, a narrative nonfiction category. The bilingual nature of the awards program continues to this day.

In 2012 the book awards became independent of Cuisine Canada and introduced a new name, a new logo, and revised categories. There are now four categories, the original General Cookbooks and Special Interest Cookbooks, and a revised name for the narrative nonfiction: Culinary Narratives. The fourth category recognizes Regional/Cultural Cookbooks. Judges are selected from across the country for each category, in English and in French, and create a short list from the first round of ranking all the titles received. One of the differences between the Canadian and American awards, apart from the bilingual nature of the Canadian, is that Taste Canada -- The Food Writing Awards is now an independent body whose goal is "to recognize and celebrate superior writing and publishing throughout Canada's culinary world, both English and French." It is not an organization that offers other programs, with one exception. The weekend before the Awards gala in November, a cooking competition is held at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, in which students from culinary schools across the country compete, using recipes from books submitted that year. The book's author mentors the team cooking from the chosen book.


Taste Canada -- The Food Writing Awards

  • In 2012, the first year of Taste Canada —The Food Writing Awards, the newly named Culinary Narrative First Prize was awarded to Natalie MacLean for her memoir, Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World's Best Bargain Wines. MacLean is a writer who travels throughout the wine world in search of wines and wine stories. This title follows her earlier book, Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.
  • The Culinary Narrative Prize for 2013 will not be awarded until November 4, but there are three titles on the short list, all quite different from each other.
  • Davin de Kergommeaux has written a history of Canadian whisky entitled Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. De Kergommeaux takes the reader across the country, looking at the history and the process of Canadian whisky-making.
  • French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can Too!) is the second title on this year's short list. It is a memoir of a year spent in France, but a memoir with a difference: its focus is on the methods used to introduce French children to food, a method that results in food being a delight for them and not the source of a battleground as it seems to be for so many North American children. Backed by scientific study and anecdotal evidence, Karen Le Billon has much to say to teach North American parents about their children and food.
  • Megan Ogilvie has yet an entirely different book on the 2013 short list for Culinary Narratives. Ogilvie is a columnist for the Toronto Star who sends meals from fast-food restaurants to a lab for testing nutritive levels. In Menu Confidential: Conquer the Calories, Sodium and Fat Hiding in the Foods You Love, she offers the truth about our favorite fast-food items. But she also provides tips on how to enjoy food at our favorite places without coming out too calorie-laden. She gives clear advice about nutrition and what to look for when eating out. Stay tuned to Taste Canada to see which of the three titles won the crystal!

Readers' advisors may rarely think about culinary writing for nonfiction readers' advisory, but in fact there is a wealth of material being published and seeking the winners and finalists of the three major culinary book awards is a very good place to start.

Maureen O’Connor is a retired librarian and a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of Life Stories: A Guide to Reading Interests in Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Diaries and co-author of Canadian Fiction: A Guide to Reading Interests. She is also English-language chair of Taste Canada—The Food Writing Awards.