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2018 Cookbook Hall of Fame: Betty Fussell

Scott Barton

April 27, 2018

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Cookbook Hall of Fame Betty Fussell

This award is given to a cookbook or body of work that has had a significant and enduring impact on the way we cook and understand food.

The eel and I were already intimate, for I had carried him in my lap in a large plastic bag on the subway from Chinatown, and he had roiled against my belly as if I were pregnant with eels.

Nonagenarian Betty Fussell does not mince words. Nor is there room for cuteness or squeamishness in her writing. Fussell’s visceral prose always faces up to the reality of things.

In her 2017 collection, Eat, Live, Love, Die: Selected Essays, Fussell provides a window into her fifty years as an essayist on food, culture, womanhood, and travel. True to many women of her generation, Fussell married her college sweetheart, had two children soon after, and gave dinner parties until she left her housewife mantle and husband behind.

Best known for The Story of Corn, Fussell authored more than a dozen books and had numerous essays published in newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Saveur magazine, and Vogue magazine. Fussell has lectured across the nation from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Iowa’s State Fair, and has taught writing, food history, and food preparation. She has been the recipient of Food Arts’ Silver Spoon Award, the IACP Jane Grigson Award, and has been twice-honored by the James Beard Foundation: receiving the Journalism Award for magazine feature writing in 2008, and being inducted into the Who’s Who in Food & Beverage in America in 2009. Her memoir, My Kitchen Wars, was adapted for a one-woman show by actress Dorothy Lyman in Los Angeles and New York City. Fussell was ahead of her time in regards to many industry-wide shifts taking place today, such as the push for farm to-table, the promotion of gender equality in the kitchen, and the growing consciousness of traceability, sustainability, and the dangers of the degradation of our foodshed and environment.

An excerpt from her essay, “My Worst Thanksgiving Ever,” illustrates the power of her acerbic wit and prescient eye for cultural nuance:

So, my first (and last) Thanksgiving in our tract house in suburban New Jersey was doomed by architecture. A concrete box set on a cement slab was meant to be an all-in-one living/dining/cooking space, with niches behind for two bedrooms and a bathroom and a sliding glass door to bring the outside in. So efficient, so modern, just one big happy family. All together now-screeeam... 

The James Beard Foundation is pleased to induct Betty Fussell into the Cookbook Hall of Fame.

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Scott Barton is the member of the James Beard Foundation Book Awards Committee.

Learn more about the 2018 James Beard Awards.