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Awards Watch: How the Book Awards Are Judged

Andrea Weigl

February 08, 2016

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Tell people you are a food writer and often they assume you're a restaurant critic. 

It's the same when I tell people that I serve on the James Beard Foundation's Book Awards subcommittee. They assume I pick the winning books. The reality is that my fellow subcommittee members and I are administrators, not judges. 

Each January, we gather at the Foundation's accounting firm in New York City with the 400-plus books that have been entered for consideration. We review all of the books to make sure they qualify based on the rules. We make sure they are entered in the correct categories. We each oversee a category or two and assign independent judges to those categories. Each category has four judges. They are food and beverage writers, cookbook authors, food historians, booksellers, chefs, and culinary instructors. Past and current judges have included cookbook authors Grace Young, Anne Willan, and Peter Reinhart, as well as food historians Barbara Haber and Jessica Harris. 

Shortly after our January meeting, boxes of books, which have been assembled by the Foundation’s Awards team, arrive on judges’ doorsteps. Judges then set out to determine their top five books within their assigned category. They start by reading and sorting through the books, trying to narrow down the pool before they begin testing recipes. 

Then it’s into the kitchen. Judges test recipes from many of the submitted books. We require that they test at least two recipes from their top five books.

It's fun, but it’s grueling, and it all has to be finished within a daunting timeframe. Some of our judges are overseeing categories with more than 50 books. This year’s ballots are due by February 22, which means judges have about six weeks to read, test, and evaluate. 

The judges are not paid. They are not reimbursed for their testing ingredients. They get to keep the books and receive a ticket to the Book, Broadcast & Journalism Awards in April. 

They are a diligent group. We can tell by reading their ballots and responding to their questions along the way. I love what Jen Garbee wrote for LA Weekly several years ago about her experience and what was foremost in her mind: "It's impossible not to continually remember that if it were your cookbook up for review, you'd want a fair shake. Time to preheat the oven again."

Book Awards nominees will be announced Tuesday, March 15.