When the James Beard Foundation awards unfurled recently, I watched the live Twitter stream from home on the other coast in California, just to be part of the excitement. It’s fun to see who won, who lost, and read about the drama (mostly about chefs, because apparently writers aren’t that exciting).
Then I read most of the pieces that won, because I always like to read what judges think is the best writing out there (or at least, the best of what was submitted.)
If you have time, I suggest you do the same. In the old days, we’d have to buy many magazines. Now we can read most of the articles online and learn why they won. I put in the links below, not just to the stories, but sometimes to the writers so you can learn who wins an award, and why.
So what kind of pieces win the Beard journalism awards? Here are three qualifications:
1. Long feature stories. Long form journalism is not dead. In fact, this is what wins: well researched, well reported lengthy narratives with a strong point of view and beautiful transitions that keep you reading. Despite all the noise about short attention spans, these pieces demand your full attention, because they unfold over several pages.
2. Edited stories. Big national magazines win the bulk of the awards. That means a crack editor worked with the writer on the story, shaping it before it’s written, asking for a second draft, making structural decisions about story flow, cutting, adding and polishing. A second editor might read the story and comment before it goes to copy edit and perhaps fact checking. To some extent, you’re looking at a team project.
The exception is the annual blog award, written by an individual. The writing has to be good enough to compete with all these magazine pieces. Understanding this makes me even more awed by the winner.
3. Long blog posts. Forget about 250 words and “listsicles” because everyone’s busy. If you want to write a piece that’s worthy of an award, it’s gotta go long. This is true for inclusion in anthologies as well.
Now, let’s review the awards:
Publication of the Year
Based in Watertown, MA, this is a colorful, mostly-recipes quarterly magazine written for kids. You won’t find ads for Coca-Cola here — or any ads, for that matter. The publisher and editor write most of the recipes.
Each of the three pieces is quite different. The first two are well-reported articles based on news or trends, with a strong point of view reinforced by quotes and sometimes studies. The third, while a trend piece, becomes a long travelogue, a study of place through food. Recipes appear in the second piece as examples of a food philosophy the writer advances.
Here are vivid descriptions of the food, the chefs, and the places, with humor, action verbs, and similes. Clever and modern, these are not the stuffy restaurant reviews of old.
Food and Culture
Ann Taylor Pittman
“Mississippi Chinese Lady Goes Home to Korea”
A gorgeous first-person essay disguised as a piece about Korean food, where the American author discovers her heritage and family. Pittman is the food editor of Cooking Light. She had an opportunity here that might not have been given to a freelancer.
Food and Travel
Travel + Leisure
“The Best Little Eating Town in Europe”
I’ve never seen a lede like this before: “Imagine you are a mushroom. What do you dream of?” It got my attention. (Of course, mushrooms do not dream of being cooked and eaten, if they dream at all.) The mushroom reverie ends as the author, a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure, writes knowledgeably about Copenhagen restaurants, chefs and most importantly, the foods he eats.
Food Coverage in a General-Interest Publication
Hey, a prize for an editor! Read the above link to understand which food writers this Food and Nutrition editor hires and why. This is the same magazine that won above for “Cooking, Recipes, or Instruction.”
A long investigative piece about farmworker abuses in the US. According to FERN’s website, writers pitch stories to FERN, and editors mentor the younger writers.
It’s freelancer Adam Sachs again, after winning for Travel + Leisure above (He was a staff writer at GQ for five years, so take that into account). Here you’ll find a funny obsessive essay about making authentic yakitori, a gutsy move to make lunch for two New York Times food critics, and a reflective piece on holiday cooking traditions. They’re all great ideas for columns, well told, and a little over the top.
Group Food Blog
This is Whole Foods Market’s online magazine that “explores the realms of food, health, sustainability, design, tech and social enterprise.” The current issue shows 22 pages of mostly hipster white guys who are chefs and fishermen, with videos, recipes, and splendid page design.
Here’s Eating Well‘s signature storytelling within the realm of science reporting. You’ll find lots of statistics and quotes in this well-reported and lengthy story. The author, contributing editor Rachael Moeller Gorman, also won a Beard award for her 2010 EatingWell article “Captain of the Happier Meal.”
“The Cheap Bastard’s Ultimate Guide to Eating like a Total Cheap Bastard in Dallas”
I enjoyed this piece so much I read more of Laussade’s writing in the Dallas Observer and laughed my head off. Authoritative and hilarious, this piece includes such lines as “brings you 100 percent relief from even the flop-sweatiest of Texas summers. Plus, you’ll probably see a hooker.”
Individual Food Blog
Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
Hank’s been nominated three times for this award, and I’m thrilled he finally got his due. A former line cook and political reporter, he puts a serous amount of work into his blog posts. Even if you are not going fishing or hunting, read this post as an example of voice and rich language.
MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing
“Chicken of the Trees”
An engaging personal essay where the writer, enraged by the squirrel who eats his rooftop tomatoes, learns the history of eating squirrels in the US, goes off to hunt the little bastards, and makes dishes with squirrel meat.
When reading Dunlop I am always impressed by her knowledge and respect for Chinese cuisine, yet she is never snobby or condescending. This story is part memoir, part outrage on how Westerners look down upon Chinese food.
Whoa! How ironic that this story follows Dunlop’s. Here’s the stereotype of the befuddled white guy taking a chance on exotic Eastern food, with disastrous results. “Welcome to the Restaurant as Acid Test, a one-way ticket to Toontown,” writes Martin. It’s a disquieting lede to a profile of a current celebrity and restaurant of the moment. Once the author gets to the real story, the piece takes off. Martin also won an award for The Hangover, Part III.
A visually-driven magazine that comes out only twice a year. To understand its persona, read this round-up story on hipster magazines from the Boston Globe.
A fascinating detective story about fine wine fraud, written for readers of Vanity Fair, an educated bunch who know something about collecting fine wine, or aspiring to.
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You might also like:
- 9 Award-Winning James Beard Stories, and Why They Won (2012)
- Alan Richman, the “Most Decorated Food Writer in America”