Judges’ Report – 2018

This year’s crop of entries for the Sophie Coe Prize was disappointingly small. Those who write on food studies are more numerous every year, and yet, from the slender evidence of essays submitted in 2018, not enough of them are asking themselves challenging questions or pausing to consider the significance of their answers. The judges would like to say that any well-grounded, compellingly written essay on an important topic in food studies, if eligible in 2019, ought to be submitted for the Sophie Coe Prize. It will have an excellent chance of being recognised and a fair possibility of winning.

Now to the four essays that, in our view, demand to be noticed individually.

First, two commendations: Divya Schäfer in “Exotic Tastes, Familiar Flavours: Transcultural Culinary Interactions in Early Modern India” finds documentary sources, largely unexplored till now, on the Columbian Exchange as it affected Indian cuisine, and notably the arrival (much later than is often assumed) of the chilli pepper. Valentina Peveri in “Flavouring the Nation: the Rhetoric of Nutrition Policies in Ethiopia” shows how in Ethiopia (as surely elsewhere) fashions in world food policy combine with national imperatives to spread a precarious standard while sidelining and uprooting local food practices. The work of these two authors deserves to be widely read.

Chau-Jean Lin startled us with “Our Friends, the Buffalos”, a closely observed history of the decline and fall of the water-buffalo in Taiwan, once the farmer’s hard-working companion, now a mere source of meat; this from the point of view of a single family split between Taiwan and the United States. We commend this work highly, observing that to contend seriously for the Sophie Coe Prize an essay does not have to be dry and academic. It has to be well written and persuasive, as Lin’s is.

This year’s winner, Anthony Buccini, begins with a small question about the real name of a French lobster dish in his essay “À l’américaine or à l’armoricaine? A New World Sauce in French Regional Cooking and Haute Cuisine”. Alan Davidson had dismissed the issue: “Whether one prefers américaine or armoricaine is immaterial: both names are inappropriate and lack historical basis”. Buccini finds good reason to prefer à l’américaine. He triumphantly reconstructs the lost history behind this name, showing that the ‘Americans’ who brought the lobster dish to Europe were the slave-owning French settlers of Saint-Domingue, turned into refugees by the revolution of 1791-1804 that established independent Haiti. Buccini draws on cookery skills and etymological insights to evoke a forgotten culture and an almost undocumented cuisine.