Ahead of the announcement of this year’s prestigious André Simon Food and Drink Book Awards on 3 March 2021, Andy Lynes spoke to Sunday Times Food Editor Lisa Markwell about her first year as Food Book Award Assessor and what it was like reading 140 cookbooks in the space of a few months.
COMPETITION: For a chance to win a copy of Red Sands by Caroline Eden, one of the shortlisted books, head over to my twitter account @andylynes and check out my recent timeline. Closes 25 February, open to UK readers of Cookbook Review only.
Andy Lynes: When did you begin the judging process?
Lisa Markwell: Last November was really when everything started happening and publishers started sending their books in. The beginning of December was when I really started looking in earnest. So I suppose there were two months of hard looking. Halfway through December, I’d whittled it down and then we decided, for the first time I think , to have a long list.
This is the first year I’ve been involved but I think usually it’s quite brutal, it goes from however many there might be (and this year has been a bumper year), so let’s say usually there’s something around 90 books, that’s then cut straight down to six or seven. So we decided to have a longlist in order to acknowledge the books, which perhaps weren’t central to the criteria of the awards but they were nevertheless really worthwhile to talk about. So that was six weeks of ‘tough, tough, tough cut, cut, cut’ down to the middle of December and then after Christmas I picked it back up again. I then worked quite hard on cutting it down to a shortlist which was towards the end of January.
AL: That first round of culling, what’s your criteria?
LM: Luckily for me, the criteria are quite specific. The book does have to have an educational agenda and a sort of new facet; it can’t be for instance, a collection of recipes that has been done before, so some books you would take away immediately for that. And then the fact that it has to be educational, not in a very sort of nerdy way, but nevertheless, it has to teach you something new, so that meant fun books about, let’s say, cooking with a slow cooker weren’t right for this competition. So that was the first cut – there’s nice books out there, but they’re not right for this.
Then you have to take into consideration how well it’s actually written. I’m lucky that, because I’ve done my chef training, I can look at recipes and think, I’m just not sure that that’s good and well enough written, so there were some books that fell by the wayside because of that. In terms of more narrative books, there were a couple that I really liked the look of but I found them impenetrable or boring. Like any book they have to look appealing and that’s anything from font – is it easy to read – to the illustrations, what’s the photography like, the layout.
I quite quickly got it down to about 24 books and then we ended up with the longlist of 15 that was announced in December. The Pie Room by Calum Franklin was on the longlist which is a book that’s been really successful, much loved, fantastic book, really lovely and deserved to be there. Entangled Life is a book by food nerd (I don’t know if he’d want himself to be called that) Merlin Sheldrake, which is all about mushrooms and fungi which was a really fascinating book, a real deep dive into fungi and everything to do with them, so that definitely needed to be on the long list. There was something a bit more light hearted, like Victory in the Kitchen, which was the story of, Churchill’s cook, the woman who cooked all the food at 10 Downing Street when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, a lovely fun book. So the longlist was a bit more wide ranging, it was a bit more freewheeling, but then it had to be cut back and then it got hard.
One thing I did feel was that I knew that sometimes an award is given to somebody for their first book and there were a couple of books, which I thought were terrific, but perhaps didn’t quite reach the height of some of the ones that were on the short list but I thought, those people I hope will possibly get the amplification of getting a special award.
AL: I was looking at all the past winners of the awards and, although there are a few big names like Rick Stein and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, often the winners will be lesser known writers. Is there any consideration given to getting bigger names on the shortlist that will have media impact and increase the profile of the awards, or is that not an issue?
LM: I definitely didn’t have that in my mind. I didn’t see it that way. Nigella Lawson had a book out last year, Yotam Ottolenghi had a book out last year, but neither of those books were quite right, I didn’t feel, for the André Simon. You can see, perhaps for some people that it would be great to give it to a big name because then you get lots of hoo-ha around it, but I just don’t think this is that kind of award. Something like the Fortnum and Mason Awards for instance might be more – I don’t want to use mass appeal as a sort of pejorative term – but you know, André Simon is really about a particular kind of book. Josh Niland who won last year – that is such a fantastic book from someone who’s not a household name, but if you’re interested in fish, I think anyone would love that book. That exemplifies what the André Simon award is all about; is it exciting and is it going to take you somewhere from either reading it or cooking from it or both? That’s one of the things that’s interesting about this year is that the recipe books are a much more than recipe books and the narrative books are much more than factual, they’ve got real spirit to them.
AL: Over the years, the award has been given to what have turned out to be important and influential books such as On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee and The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan among others. Did you have an eye on longevity when drawing up the shortlist?
LM: That was definitely one thing that Katy Lander, who administrates the awards, did say to keep in mind and that’s definitely in the entry criteria – is this a book that will be around in 10 years and will be on the shelf; is it something that people will refer back to? That’s really the spirit of the prize. Something like The Flavour Thesaurus that won ten years ago, that sort of book that transcends trends, that’s really a book that you pull down time and time again. It was a really unusual book as well and Niki Segnit, I didn’t know much at all at that point, so it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s the content that’s important.
AL: Did having the opportunity to see so many books in a short period of time allow you to identify any current trends in cookbook publishing?
I don’t know how quickly trends move in food books. In my day job, I get sent books a lot and last year, or maybe the year before, I felt if I got one more ‘easy vegan’ I’d go completely nuts. It felt like the publishers had thought, crikey, we’ve got to get the vegan book out. But that felt like it was quite a long time in coming. A food book is quite complicated, even if for no other reason just to actually cook the food and photograph it, these things take time. So I think the trends probably don’t move that quickly. But one of the biggest and welcome trends, if you can call it that, but perhaps evolutions, has been the rise of the travel-meets-food-meets-culture-meets history-meets-politics -the ‘holistic food book’ if you want to use a terrible term – that really takes the subject in the round.
Four of the books on the shortlist do that. Summer Kitchens is about Ukraine; Red Sands, that whole central Asian thing; Parwana is Afghanistan and Falastin is Palestine. They’re all books that look at a geographical cuisine but then they do so much more than that. You can’t have a book about food from Palestine without talking about the politics of Palestine. Similarly Parwana, that’s such a beautiful book that actually doesn’t pull any punches about the politics in that country, but does it through the prism of food and family, which I think is really successful.
I hesitate to sort of talk about it because it’s such a hot potato, but something that has caused a lot of friction in food writing and food books is the issue of cultural appropriation; who is the right person to write on any subject. The thorny matter of is Jamie Oliver allowed to talk about jerk chicken, or whatever it is. I think that the voice that’s been given to people like Durkhanai who wrote Parwana, that is fantastic. Food books are giving people who have grown up with a cuisine or have something really authentic to say about it – they’re given that voice and opportunity. I think that can only be a good thing.
AL: Yes, absolutely. Although, over the last three or four years, books have been getting more and more granular in terms of the regions and areas that they’re covering. I just wonder if there’s anywhere left on the planet that hasn’t got a cookbook about it now!
I haven’t got the full list of submitted books in front of me but I did think that there were some quite specific areas of food and I thought crikey, who’s going to buy this other than the author’s family, it has a very local niche appeal. But you can’t ignore the fact that last year, no one’s been allowed to travel, in fact they’re not going to be able to this year, so that sort of armchair travel and deliciousness you can get through food is a good thing. I wouldn’t want to say anything negative about books that marry travel and food. It’s been a real pleasure for me to read them.
AL: Having gone through the process of being the André Simon Food Award Assessor for the first time this year, has it put you off – given that you also have your day job as Sunday Times food editor and your work editing and contributing to Code – or, if you were asked, would you do it again?
I would love to do it again. Probably what I would do next time is get to know XL spreadsheets a bit better and plot my time better because I’m probably the quintessential journalist, I can’t do anything without a deadline. No matter how long I’ve got to do something I will always do it at the eleventh hour.
It was definitely an advantage having already seen some of the books. Jikoni, Red Sands and Summer Kitchens I was pretty familiar with and Falastin, having been to Palestine myself, I was very eager to see that as soon as it came out. So having been quite familiar with them and cooked from them, it did give me a bit more time to read things like Harold McGee’s Nose Dive which is a hell of a tome, it’s a big, big book and it covers a huge subject. Hands up, I haven’t read every page of it yet, but I keep going back to it.
I don’t know if every year is as amazing as this. It does feel like it has been a particularly fantastic year. But yeah, I’d love to do it, but I would be more scientific.
Jikoni by Ravinder Bhogal
Summer Kitchens, Olia Hercules
Falastin: A Cookbook, Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley
Nose Dive, Harold McGee
Parwana, Durkhanai Ayubi
Salmon, Mark Kurlansky
Red Sands, Caroline Eden
Eating for Pleasure People and Planet by Tom Hunt
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
Spoon Fed by Tim Spector
The Pie Room by Calum Franklin
The Whole Chicken by Carl Clarke
Victory in the Kitchen: The Life of Churchill’s Cook by Annie Gray
The Chicken Soup Manifesto by Jenn Louis
About the awards
Founded in 1978, the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards are the only awards in the UK to exclusively recognise the achievements of food and drink writers and are the longest continuous running awards of their kind. The first two awards were given to Elizabeth David and Rosemary Hume for their outstanding contribution in the fields of food and cooking. Other winners include Michel Roux, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater, Rick Stein, Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke.
There are two categories: food, and wine, drinks and beverages. For the winner of each category there will be an award of £2,000. In addition, there will be an award of £1,500 in honour of John Avery and the Special Commendation Award of £1,500 – both of these are awarded at the discretion of the judges.
The main criteria against which the works are judged are:
- The work shall contain a substantial proportion of original research and not simply be a re-arrangement of existing material.
- Great importance will be attached to the educational value of the work.
- The books chosen are likely to be ones that are pleasurable to read and not just professional textbooks.
- The book should be well produced.
When judging the books, the Trustees have the help and advice of two independent assessors. In 2020 Lisa Markwell has kindly agreed to assess the food books and John Hoskins is assessing the drink books. Judging will be in the hands of the Trustees. Their decision will be final, and no correspondence will be entered into. The André Simon Food & Drink Book Award Trustees are Nicholas Lander (Chair), Sarah Jane Evans MW, David Gleave MW and Xanthe Clay.