9 James Beard Award-Winning Stories, and Why They Won

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By now you’ve seen the announcements for the Oscars of food writing, the James Beard Awards for books, broadcast and journalism.

But have you read the pieces that won over the judges? I thought not.

I tracked down a handful of feature stories and explain why this is food writing at its finest. Here’s what it takes to win an award of this caliber, with links to writers so you can investigate who won as well:

1. Cooking, Recipes, or Instruction: Anna Thomas, Eating Well, for “The Soup for Life”

Here’s a sensuous look at how Thomas concocted recipes for green soups for her most recent cookbook, Love Soup. Her writing is full of action verbs (“a bitter wind was swatting down the last damp leaves”), evocative writing (“onions, slowly sizzling in the skillet, turned the color of caramel toffee”), and passionate storytelling about how her obsession drove her to create earthy, elegant soups.

I still have my beloved 1972 copy of The Vegetarian Epicure, which Thomas wrote while a film student at UCLA.

2. Environment, Food Politics, and Policy. Ben Paynter, Fast Company, for “The Sweet Science”

What’s a computer industry magazine doing writing about food and food politics? It’s really a tale of how agriculture giant Cargill triumphed in bringing a new sweetener, Truvia, to market. Paynter, a first-rate reporter, humanizes the story by focusing on a single employee’s successes.

3. Food Culture and Travel, Fuchsia Dunlop, The Financial Times, “Global Menu: Kicking Up a Stink”

Dunlop expertly leads readers into a suspenseful tale of serving stinky cheeses to to the Chinese. You’re halfway through the story, wondering, “Will they like it?” before you find out the answer. And you’re as fascinated as she is by the question.

4. Group Food Blog, The Salt: NPR’s Food Blog

Quirky, intelligent, and newsy, this group blog focuses on the fascinating issues like whether rice and beans really are good for you; and how chefs add butter to make wild food taste great. Read bios of the main contributors on NPR’s right column.

5. Humor, Brett Martin, GQ, “The Hangover Part III”

I don’t know about you, but I am so over reading about drunken Tokyo escapades with chef David Chang. I mean, the whole idea of answering a tweet asking if a magazine could sponsor a drunk weekend of amazing meals is crazy…unless you’re a testosterone-fueled magazine like GQ. A fun read, nevertheless.

6. Individual Food Blog, Poor Man’s Feast, Elissa Altman, Poormansfeast.com, “Craving the Food of Depravity”

As we know, anyone can start a food blog. But Elissa Altman is not “anyone.” She’s a fascinating storyteller, trained chef and published author. This post was a seemingly ordinary tale of gorging on pimento cheese and eating smoked oysters, but her thoughtfulness and intimacy about her life come through with a total lack of pretension. Here’s Altman’s post on winning the Beard award.

7. Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review Award, Alan Richman, GQ, “The Very Tasty Liberation of Paris,” “I
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f0 San Francisco
,” “Diner for Schmucks

It wouldn’t be the Beard Awards without Alan Richman. He almost always wins. You can see why in these three stories. You’ll be shocked by the bravado he displays in the last one.

Richman writes with confidence and intelligence. He’s funny, brutally honesty, and suspenseful. He’s famous for such lines as, “The cooking here has two styles: a little too much or a lot too much.”


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(Disclosures: I was a judge for the Beard awards this year, but in books, not journalism. This post contains affiliate links, from which I make a few cents if you buy something.)


  1. says

    This is a lovely post on multiple levels. One, it’s always great to find interesting new reads and two, I love that you dissected what is great about each of them. It really makes for a great tutorial. Thanks as always.

  2. says

    I, too, am a little bored with Chang’s drunken escapades. The guy’s gonna die young! But I appreciate the humorous, somewhat depraved, “no holds barred” tone of the story, which I like in Lucky Peach too. It’s not a writing style I’m ever going to imitate, but I truly enjoy reading writers who do something completely different from what I do. I find it entertaining and inspiring too, in fact, I always marvel at how people know how to play with words.

    I had not read any of the James Beard Award winning pieces, so I’m grateful that you put this list together. Just queued them all up in Instapaper and I will read them on vacation next week.

  3. says

    So many talents, what a joy for all of us who love to read good writing about and around food!
    Thanks for all those links, I don’t know those authors or blogs, except Anna Thomas whose New Vegetarian Epicure I bought while in NYC in June 1996 and whose piece on Soup in Eating Well reminded me of the beautiful newsletters she used to post on her site.
    I feel very lucky to be able to read english because in my country, France, writing about food is quite different than what one can have access to in the US. We French can read an enormous amount of recipes, have easy access to very fresh and good natural foods, but there are not (still?) many writers who tell stories around the food they love, they cook, they choose.

    • diannejacob says

      How fascinating. Why do you think that is, Flo? There are lots of excellent storytellers in England, so it’s certainly not an American tradition.

      I did not know about Anna Thomas’s newsletters. I’m going to go back to her site and poke around.

  4. says

    Thanks for a wonderful hour and a half so well spent – I was transported to downtown Manhattan, then to one of my favourite places in China, Shaoxing, on to the inner machinations of a food company and lastly to the maple forests of Vermont. Loved every minute of my armchair food travels.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Sarah. Those were the days, eh? Now we are all in the wilderness, alone at our computers, trying to puzzle it all out ourselves. You are welcome.

  5. says

    One more thing! I just read Elissa’s great post on the Food of Depravity. It’s so easy to adore her and her writing for her honesty and relatability. What I especially love, following our previous conversation about the importance of photography and video in blogging, is that this winning post is all about good writing, and has nothing to do with splashy perfect food and aspirational food photography at all, or any visual medium for that matter. Is it wrong to dream there’s still room for more of this, for sometimes just writing what you feel, fueled by genuine curiosity and the pleasure of sharing common human experience? Agh, I may be too old-fashioned for this business…

    • diannejacob says

      Not at all. I don’t think you’re old fashioned. There are lots of print-only books about adventures and experiences. Take a look at my Amazon sidebar on the right. You won’t find a single photo in any of those books. They’re all narrative.

  6. says

    Thank you so much for this list of good reads. I also want to tell you how much I appreciate your site, not only for its valuable content, but for the comments from the other readers. Although there has been a lot of press lately about the future of food writing (and depending on whether you’re the glass half empty or full mentality), gleening from your readers, I’d say there is a lot to be said and written in the food writing world.

    Thanks again.

    • diannejacob says

      You’re welcome, Maureen. I agree about the comments – they’re the best part, so thanks for participating. There is still lots to be written, so we need to get out there and do it.

  7. says

    Thanks so much for linking to these stories Dianne; we can all learn a lot from reading exactly what it takes to be an award winner of this calibre. Not only that, but the stories themselves are so engaging. I’m away in Italy at the moment, but will be making green soup as soon as I get home and my breath was taken away by the audacity of the restaurateur in Richman’s tale – I can’t wait to read the rest.

    • diannejacob says

      How lovely to be in Italy, Amanda. It must be gorgeous at this time of year. Hope you are reading these with a gelato in hand.

  8. says

    I’ve read a couple but not all, so thanks for all the links. And I, too, have my old and very well-loved Vegetarian Epicure I and II that are still, after all these decades, still my most used cookbooks, so an extra cheer to Anna Thomas.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, it must be old and yellow like mine. Have you tried her cauliflower curry in that edition? It is among my most loved recipes. I double the spices.

      • says

        Yellowed and in pieces! I love her Indian recipes but have not yet tried that one. I will when I am home next week! Thanks! (hug)

  9. Suzanne Banfield says

    Thank you, Diane, for pulling all of these stories together for us. Your comments pulled me into each one and, as different as they were, I enjoyed each one.

    • diannejacob says

      Wonderful, Suzanne. I love it that you read them all. It’s true that they are all quite wildly different from each other. Yet the writing is exceptional in each one.

  10. MM Pack says

    I am such an Anna Thomas fan, I cherish (and cook from) both the Vegetarian Epicure books. And I buy every thrift store copy I find to give to friends. I’m delighted that her new work, 30 years later, is getting well-deserved attention. Yeah, it’s all about the cooking action…

    • diannejacob says

      I did not know this about you, Mary Margaret. I hope you went to the link and read about her. I have never done so. I’ve just been enjoying her book all this time like a regular cookbook lover.

      It’s such a beautiful story about the love of cooking, you are right. Now I have to go find her soup cookbook.


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