Judges’ Report – 2021

This year, we had the largest number of entries in the history of the Sophie Coe Prize: 85. The three judges were struck by the diversity of subject matter, the high quality, and the fascinating narratives provided. 

The Sophie Coe Prize 2021 has been awarded to Carl Ipsen for “From Cloth Oil to Extra Virgin: Italian Olive Oil Before the Invention of the Mediterranean Diet.” That there’s more to our food than meets the eye is a truism solidly buttressed by this investigation of how southern Italian olive oil, now often among the finest of all extra virgin oils gracing our tables, has developed from an agricultural staple that fuelled industrial processes and life’s necessities such as fuel for lighting to being a food product notable for its artisanal veracity. The judges agreed that the breadth of sources investigated was impressive, the facts elicited surprising, the exposition clear and well expressed. The larger point of the essay is the mobility of foods across continents, but the real interest lies in the mobility of food standards across time.

The judges also wished to acknowledge several other outstanding essays from amongst this year’s submissions.

‘Nothing which hunger will not devour’: Disgust and Sustenance in the Northeastern Borderlands” by Carla Cevasco (Highly Commended). While tackling the sophisticated and interesting historical question of what knowledge and appreciation did the early settlers and the indigenous populations of North America have of the other’s foodways, it also brings into focus our own feelings of disgust or enjoyment of one food or another. The martialling of evidence – and the piquant situations of many of the providers of that evidence – is impressive as well as intriguing. The inclusion of testimony from the Native American witnesses is particularly telling. The conclusion drawn from specificities that these elemental feelings towards food might influence larger policies was very satisfying. The essay as a whole had admirable cohesion.

“The Pleasures of Eating in Early Modern Britain, c. 1550-1800” by Ella Sbaraini (Highly Commended). Given that it was often thought impolite to talk too much about food at the table, reticence about the experience of eating (unless it was the outlandish customs of foreign peoples) hampers the enquiring historian’s assessment of how much food was enjoyed, as opposed to ingested. This essay is nicely turned, with a lively awareness of others’ work in the field, but able to make a clear original contribution. Examination of diaries and correspondence can be carried on to infinity, but the author has surveyed enough of them to allow for a reasonable conclusion about pleasure, gustatory pleasure, that is. Its evidence allows us to rise above the hypothesizing from the forewords and chance remarks of cookery books, often a dangerous proceeding, and to interrogate lived experience.

“From Kitchen Arabic to Recipes for Good Taste: Nation, Empire and Race in Egyptian Cookbooks” by Anny Gaul (Commended).

“Finding Apūpa: Not forgotten, just hidden in plain sight” by Priya Mani (Honourable Mention).