Chef, food writer and author Meera Sodha is the independent assessor of the food category for the 2018 Andre Simon Food and Drink book awards.
Born in Lincolnshire to Ugandan Indian parents, her love for her ancestors’ food and a desire to keep their food traditions alive led her to capture her mother’s recipes from her childhood in her first cookbook Made in India, which was published by Figtree, Penguin in July 2014 It became a top 10 best seller and was named a book of the year by The Times and the Financial Times. Her second book, Fresh India, published July 2016 is a celebration of India’s love of vegetables.
How did you get involved with the awards?
My first two books, Made in India and Fresh India were both shortlisted so I’ve been lucky enough to come to the awards twice, meet the team and enjoy the company of so many interesting and influential voices in the world of food. I’ve have always loved how the awards is for the writers and by the writers and that every year, the shortlist throws up books I have never heard of and immediately want to buy. So when I got asked to be the independent assessor, I jumped at the opportunity.
What are your responsibilities as independent assessor?
I have the job of taking a very long list down to a shortlist and then ultimately to a few winners. Quite a daunting prospect once I realised just how books the postman was going to be delivering to me.
How many books did you have to read in order to come up with the shortlist?
I don’t know exactly but I would guess that I have received around 150 books. It shows just how the how highly publishers and writers view the awards. At times it’s been overwhelming – but through the process I’ve got to do what I love doing most, immersing myself in great writing and great cookbooks.
What does it take for a book to make it onto the shortlist. What are you looking for in a food book to make it a potential winner?
I look for a few things:
Originality – is this a book that takes a refreshing new angle on something or opens up a new world to the reader?
Knowledge – does the writer have a firm grasp and passion for their chosen subject?
Enduring – Is this a book of the moment or a future classic that we will be talking about for years to come?
Coherent – Is there a powerful core theme that runs through the book that I can identify?
Enjoyment – Does it make me feel something and how easy is it to put down?
As an author of food books, how do you feel about judging your peers?
It’s a real honour and very exciting but I also feel a strong sense of responsibility. As a writer, I know how much it takes to write a book and how challenging it can feel to not only get something done but create something that you are genuinely proud of. With every book I have read during the judging, I have tried to put myself in the author’s shoes and understand their journey and motivations for writing the book. Whether they’re a big name or an unknown name, I have tried to treat them all equally and focus on the quality of what they have produced.
What are your top three all-time food books, either Andre Simon awards shortlisted, winners or otherwise?
I’ve loved the books produced by recent winners Mark Diacono’s Otter Farm, Rachel Roddy’s Five Quarters, Fuscia Dunlop’s Land of Fish and Rice and Stephen Harris’ The Sportsman. Sorry, that’s the previous four.
What do you think about the current food writing scene in general, do you think we are in a golden age of food writing right now?
I think of it less as a golden age and more as a scene that has just continually gets better and better over the years. A bit like the broader food world in the UK. There are now such a variety of voices writing brilliantly about such an amazing variety of topics that with each year that passes, the food writing world becomes richer and more interesting. It’s a fantastic time to be a reader – the only problem is choosing which book to read(!)
Is there a food book that doesn’t exist that you think needs to be written (and who should write it)?
Cooking in out of space. Might be a few years until we see it…
Do you think that food writing should be considered as ‘literature’ – do you think it gets taken seriously enough by critics?
I don’t mind what it is classed as, I’m more interested in how good it is and how much people are reading it. Anecdotally, I do feel as though food writing is something more people are starting to enjoy and understand. Recently, I was buoyed to see in Daunt Books that the main book being promoted throughout the store was MFK Fishers ‘Consider The Oyster’ – perhaps a book that years ago would have been hidden away in a dusty corner.