Judges’ Report – 2015

This year we received substantially fewer entries than last year’s all-time record of 39. Fortunately, the level of scholarship and readability was on the whole quite high, with fewer book proposals and journalistic articles that do not meet our requirements for originality and scholarship than in some previous years. About half the 23 entries were distinctly excellent, but once again we reluctantly had to exclude some interesting papers because they were primarily about subjects such as sociology or medicine, and thus too remote from the Coe Prize’s primary focus on food history.

The judges would first like to single out two papers as real contributions to the field:

Janet Beizer’s ‘The Emperor’s Plate: Marketing Leftovers in Nineteenth-Century Paris’ describes in exuberant detail the fascinating and, to our modern way of thinking, grotesque industry of selling food left over from restaurants and the tables of the privileged to the poor — and to some who were just extremely frugal — at bargain rates, and the techniques used for making the mess palatable, or at least palatable-looking.

‘“Whipt with a twig rod”: Irish manuscript recipe books as sources for the study of culinary material culture, ca. 1600 to1830’, by Madeline Shanahan, is an admirably close and detailed study of the utensils mentioned in these little-studied recipe books, opening a vista on the concrete world of cookery in one particular time and place.

The judges also liked Anthony Buccini’s ‘The Merchants of Genoa and the Diffusion of Southern Italian Pasta Culture in Europe,’ a sterling example of how careful linguistic scholarship can illuminate food history. Buccini has quite settled the issue of how the pastas called fideos, fedelini etc. spread.

Majorities among the judges also listed among their top papers ‘La Cuisinière Canadienne: The Cookbook as Communication,’ in which Ken Albala analyzed the function of an early 19th-century cookbook as a declaration of French Canadian cultural identity and elucidated a number of medieval culinary ideas that were apparently current in Canada when they had died out in France itself, and Máirtin Mac Con Iomaire’s ‘Gastro-Topography: Exploring Food-Related Placenames in Ireland.’ Dr. Mac Con Iomaire assembled an astonishingly large mass of food-related placenames which cast light on the economic and social life of old Ireland.

All fine papers, but the judges were unanimous on their choice for the Sophie Coe Prize: Anya Zilberstein’s ‘Inured to Empire: Wild Rice and Climate Change.’ It describes a marvelous forgotten moment in food history when British thinkers and political figures saw great potential in the native North American grain wild rice, until after considerable, heartbreaking effort they found that it resisted the usual techniques of domestication outside its original climate and environment.