Judges’ Report – 2014

This year’s competition drew a record 39 entries, thanks (we suspect) to the efforts of a number of Symposiasts in publicizing the prize more widely and perhaps the magic of our new website. Most of the entrants took on board the fact that this is a prize for food history, although there was still a scattering of otherwise good entries that had to be excluded because they were focused primarily on sociology or anthropology, with little or no mention of history. There were several entries that may well have won the prize in another year, but the judges were unanimous in their choice of this year’s winner.

We were especially pleased by the good, even high, quality of quite a few of the entries, and we would like to single out three for special mention. Charmaine O’Brien’s’ Text For Dinner: Plain food in colonial Australia …or was it?’, a provocative study of the meaning of ‘plain food’ in colonial Australian cookery, persuasively makes the original point that ‘plain’ did not mean poor-quality or dull, but rather the sort of procedures now associated with ‘slow cooking’, including subtle spicing, a generous use of wine, and the enrichment of old-fashioned English cookery with the novel ingredients of a new country.

Peter Beck’s nicely organized history of mostly Jewish food in the Lower East Side of Manhattan,’Tasting a Neighborhood: a Food History of Manhattan’s Lower East Side  builds up a picture of the rise and fall of this cuisine, and asks why the reputation of the area’s Jewish food establishments lasted much longer than the domination of the community itself, Although his answer that ‘the mythology was adopted by the neighbourhood’s new residents [Italian, Chinese, etc]’ is ultimately not particularly satisfying nor well-supported by quoted evidence, Beck’s personalized style of writing, and his focus on intimate detail illuminated from several perspectives, draw the reader along.

Anya von Bremzen’s chapter ‘The Last Days of the Czars’, from Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food, Family and Longing is a staggering tour de force of good writing – a charming, witty, shrewd meditation on what Russian food means to Russians, with wry observations about the meaning of authenticity. This brilliant autobiographical account of food and food deprivation in Soviet Russia, as recollected by both the author and her mother, is set against the later attempts to recreate it in the plenty of the USA. The stark contrasts are enlivened by the author’s biting sarcasm and black humour, while the descriptions of food and longing are almost erotic.

This year’s prize, however, goes to the highly original and fascinating study by Garritt Van Dyk on the origins of champagne, ‘Méthode Anglaise: Transnational Exchange and the Origins of Champagne’. Van Dyk’s article combines the twists and turns of a detective story with thorough and deep research to reach a startling conclusion – that British knowledge of techniques for capturing effervescence in the manufacture of cider and perry was vital to the creation of champagne, even though the invention of champagne was subsequently appropriated by the French and attributed to the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon. A worthy winner, to whom the judges have already drunk, and to whom this year’s Symposiasts will undoubtedly wish to drink.