Our Picks for the 2008 James Beard Book Awards

There's no denying 2008 was a great year for cookbooks, and there's stiff competition amongst the nominees for the James Beard Foundation's annual book awards across the board.

From Southern home-style to decadent avant garde, the main theme this year was innovation, both literary and culinary. The Foundation has some hard decisions to make, but in the meantime, here are our picks.

American Cooking

Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited by Arthur Schwartz (Ten Speed Press) [buy it]
Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans edited by Marcel Bienvenu and Judy Walker (Chronicle Books) [buy it]
Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook by Martha Hall Foose [buy it]

Bienvenu and Walker will almost certainly walk away with the medal out of this group. While Martha Hall Foose's treatise on the foods of her Dixie childhood would be a standout another year, it's hard to imagine anything other than the sentimental favorite taking the prize. Sure, you might call it post-Katrina guilt, but this is also a cookbook with a mission. As for Schwartz's offering — is it miscategorized? Why isn't he in direct competition with Jayne Cohen's Jewish Holiday Cooking, which was nominated for International Cooking? Whether or not Jewish food can be considered American cuisine is the subject of a different essay, but surely the Beard Foundation could've picked a category and stuck with it.

Predicted Winner: Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans edited by Marcel Bienvenu and Judy Walker.

 

Baking

Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking by Shirley O. Corriher (Scribner) [buy it]
Baking for All Occasions: A Treasury of Recipes for Everyday Celebrations by Flo Braker (Chronicle Books) [buy it]
The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Murshat, Sur La Table (Andrews McMeel Publishing) [buy it]

First, we must call bullshit on the fact that Matt Lewis, Renata Poliafito and Tina Rupp's fantastic Baked: New Frontiers in Baking wasn't nominated. We know it won't boost sales as much as an actual Beard nom, but we definitely give that book the Eat me daily stamp of approval. As for the actual nominees, it won't be the gourmet retail chain's offering. Between the other two, it's a toss-up, although Corriher already has a Beard Award for Bakewise's predecessor, Cookwise. So we put our faith, cautiously, with Braker.

Predicted Winner: Baking for All Occasions: A Treasury of Recipes for Everyday Celebrations by Flo Braker.

 

Cooking from a Professional Point of View

Alinea by Grant Achatz (Achatz LLC/Ten Speed Press) [buy it]
The Big Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal (Bloomsbury USA) [buy it]
Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide by Thomas Keller (Artisan) [buy it]

All three candidates in this field are impressive, but we don't think it will go to Under Pressure — the title is too specific, and doesn't have the iconic potential of Keller's other books. The other two are both incredible and intense books, and while The Big Fat Duck is gorgeous, Alinea just flat-out has better writing.

Predicted Winner: Alinea by Grant Achatz.

 

General Cooking

How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised Tenth Anniversary Edition) by Mark Bittman (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) [buy it]
Martha Stewart Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook by Martha Stewart with Sarah Carey (Clarkson Potter) [buy it]
The Bon Appetit Fast Easy Fresh Cookbook by Barbara Fairchild (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) [buy it]

We're pulling for a Martha Stewart win, but we're worried this is just because we love her book on technique for home cooks too much. We have a sneaking suspicion the Foundation will view her as too much of a brand, and give it to one of the other finalists. If Bittman wins for How to Cook Everything again — he won for the title the year it first came out — we'll be pretty irritated, but what can we say? Some people just love Mark Bittman. Maybe it'll be an upset with Fast Easy Fresh?

Predicted Winner: Martha Stewart Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook by Martha Stewart with Sarah Carey.

 

International

Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan) [buy it]
Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations by Jayne Cohen (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) [buy it]
Southeast Asian Flavors: Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore by Robert Danhi (Mortar & Press) [buy it]

This one really belongs to Alford and Duguid, not just for this book but for their catalog of exquisite studies of Asian cuisine. Jewish Holiday Cooking is, as we mentioned earlier, possibly miscategorized — Cohen lives in New York, and we're not entirely sure why this book isn't considered American when Arthur Schwartz' Jewish Home Cooking is. We certainly hope this isn't a ploy to garner both of them nods for books that should be in direct competition. Danhi's scientific angle on the perhaps tired genre of travel cookbooks might sneak him into the lead, but we doubt it.

Predicted Winner: Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.

 

Photography

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook Photography: Dominic Davies, Artist: Dave McKean (Bloomsbury USA) [buy it]
Decadent Desserts Photography: Thomas Dhellemes (Flammarion) [buy it]
Haute Chinese Cuisine from the Kitchen of Wakiya Photography: Masashi Kuma [buy it]

Does it seem odd to anyone else that Dave McKean's out-of-this-world illustrations for The Big Fat Duck Cookbook are applicable for consideration? They'll win, by a long shot (and not just because Blumenthal won't win for Best International), but it seems somewhat unfair to the other books. The photography in Decadent Desserts seems a little dated to us, and poor Masashi Kuma just can't compete against the Blumenthal-Brain Table of Contents, among other things.

Predicted Winner: The Big Fat Duck Cookbook Photography: Dominic Davies, Artist: Dave McKean

 

Reference and Scholarship

Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson (Knopf) [buy it]
The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg (Little, Brown and Company) [buy it]
The Science of Good Food by David Joachim and Andrew Schloss, with A. Philip Handel, Ph.D (Robert Rose, Inc.) [buy it]

While The Flavor Bible had its issues — the research was less than extensive in its results, the indexing of the flavor pairings could have used additional cross-referencing, and some folks think it was a weak follow-up to Page and Dornenberg's previous offering, Culinary Artistry — it is still leagues ahead of other books in this genre. Milk was too stuffy for our taste (academic texts can be written in lighter prose, contrary to Anne Mendelson's apparent opinion), and The Science of Good Food seems to be a decent concept, but lacking anything to set it apart from the pack.

Predicted Winner:: The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg

 

Single Subject

Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press) [buy it]
Mediterranean Fresh: A Compendium of One-Plate Salad Meals and Mix-and-Match Dressings by by Joyce Goldstein (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.) [buy it]
The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever by by Beatrice Ojakangas (Chronicle Books) [buy it]

We vote Fat by a landslide. The mere concept of Jennifer McLagan's love song to one of the most vilified ingredients out there intrigued us, but her humorously passionate writing hooked us. Let's not even bother with the other contenders, shall we?

Predicted Winner: Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McLagan

 

Writing and Literature

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (The Penguin Press) [buy it]
Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.) [buy it]
Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef by Betty Fussell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) [buy it]

Although we have a soft spot for Betty Fussell, this one will most likely go to Fuchsia Dunlop. Her book not only coincided with an uptick in interest in all things Chinese, but her memoir-with-recipes was a real page-turner. Michael Pollan, we're still mad you beat out Bill Buford's Heat two years ago with The Omnivore's Dilemma, so you get no love from us. Sorry.

Predicted Winner: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop

 

Check back after the awards when we either make good use of our hard-earned bragging rights or hang our heads in shame.

 

In case you were wondering, we have indeed reviewed many of these books, here are links to them:

The Alinea Cookbook Could Be Better
The Big Fat Duck Cookbook: Heston Blumenthal's Adventures in Gastroland
Review: Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages
The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Avant Lard: Fat by Jennifer McLagan
Raising Questions: Raising Steaks by Betty Fussell

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