This year I will be attending The Andre Simon Book Awards for 2016, documenting the winners of this annual event held at The Goring Hotel, London, SW1. Before the event itself, I thought it would be a good idea to ask the award’s food assessor, Bee Wilson a few questions about the process of selecting the shortlist from a whopping 140 books (Fiona Beckett is the drinks assessor).
Bee Wilson is a food writer and historian who has written a number of books on the subject such as “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat”, “First Bite: How We Learn to Eat” and most recently “This is not a diet book: A User’s Guide To Eating Well”. Her approach to food is refreshing, level-headed and thoughtful and she writes with effortless style and ease.
Having never written a book not attended a book awards before now, I thought I should find out a little bit more about how Bee tackles the task of filtering down stacks of books to the final few nominees, who are as follows:
Land of fish and rice by Fuchsia Dunlop (Bloomsbury)
Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisi Aribisala (Cassava Republic)
Gather by Gill Meller (Quadrille)
The A-Z of Eating by Felicity Cloake (Fig Tree)
Fresh India by Meera Sodha (Fig Tree)
The Oxford Companion to Cheese edited by Catherine Donnelly (OUP)
Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn (Murdoch Books)
Flavour:Eat what you love by Ruby Tandoh (Chatto & Windus)
How long did it take to narrow down the books and pick the finalists?
It was a long process of many months, because the books arrived throughout the year, in dribs and drabs. I kept reorganising them in huge piles, more than 140 of them in all. Some were quite quick to sift out – there were whole rafts of clean eating books this year, which seems to be a publishing trend that shows no signs of going away. But the hard, slow agonising part was saying goodbye to books that we really loved, but which didn’t quite make it onto the final list, for one reason or another. There were maybe 30 books that we seriously considered before finally whittling it down to 8. That was the part I didn’t enjoy.
What factors contribute to the books making the final stage?
The remit of the awards are that the books need to be well written and appealingly produced but also to educate and inform. So we always tried to bear that in mind. It has to be about the writing, not just about the food. During our conversations at the short listing meeting, I felt that what distinguished the books on the final list was a freshness of voice, and an approach to food that opens the reader’s eyes to new ways of cooking and eating. I feel very excited and proud about all the books on the final list. Some of them are books I never would have come across, had it not been for the prize.
Are there any emerging new themes for cookery books this year?
I’ve already mentioned clean eating or books on food and wellbeing, a category which has mushroomed out of all proportion. In the past, after I have judged food prizes, I will take some of the cookbooks along to my teenage daughter’s school library. This year, I am thinking twice about donating some of the books, because they contain false dogma about nutrition and body image that I am not keen to expose young people to.
On the other hand, a trend that I found very exciting was a move towards ever more globalised cuisine. There were amazing books on the food of China, Pakistan, Spain and Nigeria, to name but a few. It feels as if the world of food is opening up to new flavours, maybe because of social media.
Do you enjoy reading cookery/food history books as much as writing them?
Even though it is my ‘work’, I never get bored of reading food books. It’s an inexhaustible subject. I still take them to bed for comfort and my kitchen shelves are groaning under the weight of my current favourites.
Do you have an all time favourite cookery book/food writer?
In terms of pure non-recipe based food writing, I don’t think anyone has equalled the American writer M.F.K.Fisher. But for a practical kitchen companion, I always go back to Nigella, as well as to Good Things to Eat by Lucas Hollweg, one of the best and most underrated all-purpose cookbooks ever written.
What advice do you have for those dreaming about writing their own cook books?
Try to develop your voice. Imagine you are speaking to a dear and intimate friend, to whom you urgently need to communicate something. All of us can eat, and enjoy food, but it’s something else to make someone taste your words.
Thanks to Bee Wilson for her words. Her latest book “This is not a diet book” is out now.
The Andre Simon Book Awards are hosted on Tuesday 24th January at The Goring Hotel.
You can follow the awards on Twitter @AndreSimonAward