An interview with Yemisi Aribisala: Food Assessor 2021 – André Simon Food and Drink Book Awards

YemisiAribisala
How did you get involved with the André Simon Food and Drink Book Awards?

Salt of the earth Xanthe Clay, Columnist, Chef, and trustee of the food prize sent me a message inviting me to help assess the 2021 Food Books. My first interaction with André Simon was an email titled The André Simon Shortlist 2016 EMBARGOED. I was sitting in the Western Cape stunned that my book Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds had been shortlisted and fretting whether Simon was like Nina Simone or Paul Simon.

It seems as though there are a mountain of great food and cookery books published every year, how many did you start with and what was your process in whittling them down to your longlist?

Books tend to arrive like summer rain- spots, drizzles then downpour. I am quite sure this is the yearly pattern. The truth is you have to get on top of the reading as soon as possible and you have to keep in mind that this is the sum of people’s YEARS of hard labour, sweat and pain that you hold in your hands. Without being able to meet all the people who make that thing in your hand possible, you have to conjure up their presence, interact with every single book with great reverence. And then decide what adds something unique to the existing cannon, has longevity, distinct gastronomical appeal and would be the choice of the great André Simon who founded the prize in 1965. Who would he give his 100 guineas to?

What makes a book worthy of the André Simon longlist for you?

You come across so many books as you’ve accurately noted- a book worthy of the longlist has got to offer brilliance that distinctly stands out. The index for comparison stretches backwards and forwards, if you see what I mean. If you imagine that the trustees have seen thousands of really great books on food and drink spanning the years, and that the trustees constitute that incredible sentient index that you are presenting your book to for comparison…their responsibility is to make sure a book longlisted or shortlisted is one that you want to own, read, cook from in 10, 20 years from now.

Did you notice any trends in food publishing while reading through the contenders?

The pandemic created a flood of talented home cookery books. And you would imagine that perhaps not much more could come out of there that the vibrant cookbook publishing world hadn’t seen already. It was truly fascinating. Following that, were the goodhearted one-pan books instinctively catering to the anxieties of people that hitherto hadn’t worried too much about churning meals out daily.

Was there anything in terms of voices or subject matter that you either felt was missing in this year’s selection of published books that you read in order to select your longlist or that you would have liked to have seen more of?

I definitely would have loved to see books on Sub-Saharan African food, West-coast Africa, books that come out of wonderful communities like Little Lagos, London – especially as this year had such a wonderful global reach. Also more food memoirs from all kinds of intermingling of life and cooking.

What do you think will be the future of food and cookery writing in the UK in the next 5-10 years?

I believe there will be more food memoirs taking us right into people’s lives, homes, rooms, pots and pans, helping us interpret humanity in broader, more open minded, kinder terms. I think this is welcome because the beauty of food books is they remove the tension of meeting others and knock in place the fact that we are all the same, we all eat, for pleasure, for sustenance…Every single one of us all want basically the same things in life. I believe the UK ‘palate’ will expand for sure especially where it regards migration and the wonderful offerings of delicious niches like supper clubs and underground dining…how they represent the true diversity of culture, taste and eating in the United Kingdom.

Lastly, I believe the pandemic has forced a balance in the nation’s perspective where food writing is concerned. Yes hedonism and escapism and beautiful photographs are necessary because pleasure is its own brand of necessity, but also the reality of budgets, feeding communities and prisons, and making sure children are nurtured will be the themes of books in the next decade. I hope so.

Yemisi Aribisala, is best known for her thematic use of food writing to explore Nigerian culture. Her first book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups Sex & Nigerian Tastebuds won the 2016 John Avery Prize at the André Simon Awards and was shortlisted for the 2018 Art of Eating awards. Her writing has been published worldwide.

To find out more about the André Simon Food and Drink Book Awards click here