On Sunday night, at the IACP cookbook awards in New York, Martha Holmberg, Chief Executive Officer of IACP, won the association’s highest honor, for Cookbook of the Year. She co-wrote Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables with chef Joshua McFadden.
She wrote the book on the side, as a freelance writer. Let’s not forget that Martha was the editor-in-chief of Fine Cooking and has written many cookbooks since. But that is not the issue. When the head of the organization won, it created a conflict of interest and cast aspersions on the credibility of IACP and its judging process.
When it happened that night, I turned to a colleague sitting behind me in the New York Hilton’s auditorium and asked, “Do you think it’s fixed?”
I was joking. I’ve been a cookbook judge for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), where independent judges nominate the books. Then the cookbook executive committee (also volunteers) chooses the Cookbook of the Year from among the winner in each category.
But how it works isn’t the issue. The point is that people in charge weren’t thinking about the problem correctly and made a big mistake.
Reactions on Twitter and elsewhere were swift and savage, including against a tweet of mine. I said it looked funny, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t rigged. Amy Sherman (and others who were less polite) set me straight:
Yep. That’s not the issue, just as IACP didn’t get the issue either.
As a former judge and someone who serves on boards, I can tell you what should have happened: The full board would be consulted, discuss the issue and vote no. It would also vote to write a new rule that the CEO, board and staff may not submit books to the awards because it looks bad.
But now there’s a shitstorm, and IACP had to strip the CEO of her award. IACP has since admitted on its website that “Several industry members have raised concerns that this is a conflict of interest and an example of self-dealing.”
Here is the full statement from IACP on its website, which includes:
“We’re extremely concerned by what we see now as an appearance of impropriety, and we are taking steps to address this. We regret the shadow it has cast on our awards, the book, and IACP itself. We are so sorry that we let this happen and apologize to all for our lapse in judgment. We are therefore removing the Best Cookbook Award in our General Category and Cookbook of the Year from the book.”
The sad thing is that Six Seasons is no doubt an excellent cookbook. And that the runner up will probably not receive the Cookbook of the Year award. But as I keep repeating, that’s not the issue.
* * *
The Washington Post also covered this story, but you can’t read it unless you are a subscriber and pay $1 word.