Six James Beard Finalists You Might Have Missed: A Reading List

James Beard
James Beard, photo by Paul Child.

The James Beard Foundation announced the finalists for its 2016 food media awards last week, so it’s a great time to make a cup of tea and cozy up to some excellent food writing. You might have already read some of the nominees featured here throughout 2015 — “The Brief, Extraordinary Life of Cody Spafford,” “Straight-Up Passing,” “Corn Wars,” “The Second Most Famous Thing to Happen to Hiroshima,” “The Chef Who Saved My Life,” and “On Chicken Tenders,” which features some of the most passionate writing about fried snack foods to hit the internet’s tubes — but here are six more you might have missed:

1. “Ham to Ham Combat: A Tale of Two Smithfields” (Emily Wallace, Gravy, December 2015)

Worth it for the title alone, Emily’s piece wends from 350-year-old pro-pig promotional literature to the interstate tensions at the 1985 Ham & Yam Festival — with a pit stop to visit The Oldest Peanut in the World — in service of a single question: is the ham capital of the U.S. in Virginia, or North Carolina?  (And a runner-up question: Why does it matter?)

2. “My Father and the Wine” (Irina Dumitrescu, The Yale Review, April 2015)

“Here is what no one admits in their gleeful reports on the year of planting their own vegetables, baking their own bread, and brewing coca-cola with self-harvested cane sugar and home-grown cocaine: some undertakings require absolute, unyielding dedication, and not every member of the family or community can match it.” A stunning essay on family, the ebb and flow of relationships, roots, doing it yourself, and the long pull of food culture that rewards a re-read — you might need two cups of tea for this one.

3. “In Search of Ragu” (Matt Goulding, Roads & Kingdoms, April 2015)

A love letter to the city of Bologna, its cured meats and aged cheeses, and the nonne (grandmothers) who hand-roll its tortellini and stir its bubbling pots of ragù. I gained five pounds reading this piece, and it was totally worth it. With writing this smart, intimate, and evocative it’s not hard to see why Goulding was nominated twice this year (for this, and the Hiroshima piece).

4. “Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking” (Francis Lam, New York Times Magazine, October 2015)

A thought-provoking profile of Miss Lewis, southern chef and food ambassador and author of the seminal book The Taste of Country Cooking — part cookbook, part memoir, part anthropological study of African-American food traditions. Francis Lam ably balances deep reverence for his subject with a journalist’s eye and editor’s pen.

5. “48 Hours That Changed the Future of Rainforests” (Nathanael Johnson, Grist, April 2015)

Palm oil is an ubiquitous ingredient in processed foods and cosmetics, and farmers hurrying to feed our need for the trans-fat replacement have cleared swathes of rainforest, with far-reaching ecological implications. Can one decision change that? This is the story of how one NGO got the world’s largest palm oil corporation, which buys oil from 80% of the world’s growers, to agree not to purchase from growers who cut down the rainforest.

6. “The Woman Who Ate Atlanta” (Wendell Brock, Bitter Southerner, April 2015)

One of the South’s best restaurant critics isn’t southern at all — she’s Parisian. Meet outspoken, witty, cagey Christiane Lauterbach, the dominating doyenne of the Atlanta food scene.