James Beard Awards: A deep if problematic honor

Here’s what I”m thinking on my way to the James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards tonight, where The American Way of Eating—as well as a feature I wrote on farm labor contracting for The American Prospect—is up for an award::

(1) Awesome: These nominations suggests that maybe, just maybe, the gamble I took in writing these works is paying off. Maybe this means we’re entering an era where food isn’t just a cultural touchstone, but can yield common ground to build a food system (and world) aimed at helping us all, not just affluent consumers delighting in fine meals. To be given recognition for the kind of work I do suggests that the things that I care about — class and race and improving the world — are becoming part of mainstream thinking. That’s awesome and hugely gratifying and gives me real hope.

(2) Problematic: All awards are a bit onanistic, rewarding inner circles and connections as much as quality work. And the elite food world—as everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Malik Yakini have pointed out—is part of that tradition. Most of the people working in kitchens aren’t white, but the cross-section of people at these awards (at least, the cross-section that showed up the last time I was nominated, in 2006) doesn’t reflect that. Fine cuisine is, by definition, an elite thing; you can bring in all the home-cooked influences and soulful tales of Grandma’s famous casserole you want, but it’s still an insular world. Being offered this kind of award is a nod that says I can join this club if I want; the question I grapple with is whether I do.

I’m thinking a lot about Malik’s comments at the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards last year:

We can’t really talk about food justice unless we have the people who are most impacted by that at the table, so I just want to put that out for you to think about…racism [is] a continuing plague on American society where people with white skin continue to have unearned privilege and continue to have greater access to resources and it creates this inequity in American society and so if we want a just food system we have to begin to find a way to eliminate racism.

In the end, this is all a bit navel-gazey. It’s awesome and amazing and a huge honor to have my work recognized. But I think it’s important to keep my feet on the ground and remember that an award isn’t going to change the world at large. But it does change mine, because instead of writing quietly and smallishly and talking into the great vast dark, I have people’s attention—if only a little bit.

So what do I do now?

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