We should have abandoned all awards when Do the Right Thing was not even nominated for Best Picture way back in 1990. In that moment, the truth of them was exposed: Awards reinforce hegemonic narratives of industries that uphold the oppressive structures that govern society as a whole. Awards are naturally patriarchal, white supremacist, homophobic, transphobic, and capitalist. Awards and other sorts of “best” recognitions open up monetary and publicity opportunities for the winners, which is why we try to make them more equitable and their recipients more diverse, but allowing more people into corrupt systems doesn’t do anything to destroy those systems. Master’s tools and all! As Fiona Apple tried to tell us in 1997, at an awards show, “the world is bullshit.” We didn’t listen.
The question of awards’ significance has come up in the food world this year, with the James Beard Foundation deciding not to reveal who won their chef categories, despite revealing who did win in media—no Black chefs won, and they don’t want to experience the full heat of that reality. But they’re going to experience it anyway.
Pete Wells covered it for the Times without initially revealing that he served on the restaurant committee for two years, but he did note that he has received six of them (he was nominated another two times). Brett Martin, who won this year for writing a profile of Tunde Wey—a writer and artist in his own right who for some reason is rarely if ever allowed space and payment for his own work in magazines that love to write about him—has won three and been nominated for another two. John T. Edge, who’s been called upon to give up his post at the Southern Foodways Alliance, won this year, too—his fourth, with another six nominations. These guys must be really good! Or is it that they’re the yardstick by which everyone else is measured? The white, cis, straight male norm that plagues us all.
This kind of repetition in who is nominated and who is awarded is suspicious, right? But it becomes less suspicious when you realize freelancers have to pay to nominate themselves (which I’ve done twice, at $150 a pop, feeling gross both times but thinking I needed the possible leg up to continue to make money; it feels similar to having wanted approval from magazines like Bon Appétit and editors like Peter Meehan) and that the judging system—who’s judging, by what criteria—is opaque as hell. (I served as a subcategory judge for journalism this year; it’s a volunteer role despite the money they’re receiving from writers and publications.) There’s also the fact that a James Beard Award–winning essay or book reads like a James Beard Award–winning essay or book, like an Oscar-caliber movie is also something predetermined by its aesthetic choices. The authors are generally white. When they’re not, it’s a momentous occasion.
When it comes to chef accolades, the landscape is not much different. From my vantage point in Puerto Rico, it’s been extremely boring to watch José Enrique be the only local chef to reach the finalist stage, when—no offense intended—he’s not been the only game in town for a while. How cool would it have been this year for local queer woman or trans chefs to have taken that perch? Or, the year before, a Black woman? Or, the year before that, a chef who focuses on vegetables? It was my pretty blatant intention, when organizing a Puerto Rican Christmas dinner at the Beard House in 2018, to stand in direct opposition to prevailing narratives about who cooks and what they cook on the archipelago. But the person who continues to be recognized by this specific committee reinforces it. This seemingly small note is a microcosm of the structure as a whole. I can guarantee that locals in various cities in the U.S. and its colonies have similar stories about who’s recognized and who’s not.
With this year’s chef awards canceled and next year’s media and chef awards canceled completely; many chefs having preemptively taken themselves out of the running after controversy emerged about how they conduct their businesses; and widespread conversations about the role of the chef happening in media, it’s time to consider what they mean and whether they can be reformed. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think they can be. Neither does Adam Reiner, who wrote about canceling them permanently at Restaurant Manifesto. And John Birdsall, author of his forthcoming biography The Man Who Ate Too Much, thinks James Beard himself would feel the same. (We’ll discuss this when John and I do a Friday conversation in October.)
Charlotte Druckman wrote, in Skirt Steak, which came out in 2012, “Do the James Beard Awards discriminate against women? Not directly. Do they discriminate against diminutive, less formal establishments that have smaller budgets? Yes. Are those the kinds of venues that women are more likely to open or find jobs at? Yes.” (There will be far more charged discussion of awards in our Friday interview.)
This proves the conversation about the discriminatory nature of these awards, which pursue aesthetic sameness, has been going on for years—though oftentimes far more quietly than right now. That aesthetic homogeneity can’t be fixed in a year or two. It will require full changing of the guards and gatekeepers of media and capital. We won’t see media or these awards systems change until we see the world change, until more new people are allowed in by the availability of universal health care, basic income, free college (etc., etc.—bare-ass minimum). The voice social media has provided more people, I think, has many traditionally powerful folks confused about who’s really in charge: cultural and social capital are not the same as capital-capital, and the latter still rules us.
Like most seemingly intractable problems that can’t be fixed with reform (see: the police), the structure itself is the problem, because it’s held up by all those other oppressive structures. Any requirement of payment for nomination is automatically exclusionary and allowing people to submit for free for their first time is barely a Band-Aid on the problem—it’s a patch of toilet paper on a gunshot wound. The requirements chefs also face in needing to be obscenely visible as personalities or darlings of the media takes either a big publicity team or just... media darling status, which is conferred rather willy-nilly. (I have my darlings, of course.) If chefs don’t have to pay their way to cook at the Beard House, that’s one thing, but what if they just don’t want to cook a meal for a bunch of rich people in a West Village townhouse? How does that townhouse become a true, accessible home for gastronomy—an actual testament to Beard’s legacy?
To dismantle them altogether, though, would require many writers and chefs to change their idea of success—but what a great exercise that is, right? Imagine what your work would look like if you weren’t gunning for someone to tell you you’re the best, that you’ve beat your peers out this year. If you’re not chasing this particular carrot, shaping your work (even unconsciously) toward what usually gets these accolades, what do you do? Who can you be? The world might be bullshit, but maybe we can be free from the false narratives and stale aesthetics perpetuated by awards, at the very least. As I’ve discussed privately with some other writers, I think, even if these awards come back after their hiatus, we need to boycott them, not even give them enough work to judge or the funding to continue their existence. We can make them illegitimate. Are we willing?
On Wednesday, paid subscriber discussion will focus on awards and accolades—how have they driven either your work or your choices on what culture or restaurants to consume? How can get free of these structures, and should we?
Friday’s paid-subscriber interview is a long one with Charlotte Druckman, writer of Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, editor of the anthology Women on Food, and cookbook author, including the recent Kitchen Remix: 75 Recipes for Making the Most of Your Ingredients. We talk about awards, media, intersectionality, and much more.
At Tenderly, one of the best! cakes! I’ve! ever! made! Hazelnut with almond buttercream, inspired by flavors of working at Starbucks, topped with berries and lemon zest. Let any berries sit in a bit of sugar for a few minutes, of course.
I recently read my first issue of Monocle—was I supposed to hate it? I liked it, but subscribing costs $200 a year and I don’t feel quite that high on the hog right now. I took a break from Knausgaard’s So Much Longing in So Little Space in order to re-read Eat Pray Love for last week’s newsletter, but I’m back to it now. Other than that, so much prep for Friday interviews and book research.
A very big vegan shortbread cookie in a tart pan. Is it a cookie when it’s that big? I don’t know, but I wrote the recipe down in the caption on Instagram. Tejal Rao’s kofta curry! Everyone gave me amazing recommendations last week for Chinese food recipes and I’m going to go deep. I’ll also try to compile the recommendations for everybody to explore.