July 17-24, 2016
Avignon – Lyon
Aboard the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s New Ship: The S.S. Catherine
Prices start at $4,274 per person, all inclusive
I’ve been asked by my colleagues to write about the recent James Beard award for Been Doon So Long, presumably to not so discreetly draw attention to this highly creditable third party endorsement.1,2 I presume they are hoping to get from me something like a sincere lump-in-the-throat profession of pride; maybe a gracious conveyance of thanks to the legions of supporters of the book would also go over well.3,4,5 Don’t they know with whom they’re dealing?
Initially, there had been some confusion, at least in my mind, about when the event was actually taking place. I had already committed to attend a wholesaler trade tasting in Chicago on what I believed was the day of the award, but hearing word of the book’s nomination compelled a navigational redirect Manhattanward. As it turned out, sometime in the last decade or so, it seems the James Beard Foundation has stretched the award ceremony to become a two-day affair, and my gig was not on Monday, the traditional day of the awards, but rather on the Sunday before.6 The Sunday event was focused on the journalistic and literary aspect of food and wine writing – monthly columns, articles, blogs, and of course books.7,8
I am not privy to all of the issues that the Foundation has had to deal with in the last few years, but the organization itself has had its share – an enormous scandal a few years back, when its President was found to be misappropriating funds, and was ultimately sentenced to do some real serious jail time.9 So, despite some historical issues of transparency and accountability, the Foundation seems to have pulled itself together, closed ranks, soldiered on, and by all evidence – the very high production values of the event itself,10 the expansion from a one-night event to two, and the sheer volume of publicity/mild hysteria surrounding the event – the Foundation has seemingly prospered, the earlier stigma now a mildly embarrassing historical relic.
I didn’t go the Big Event on Monday for a number of reasons,11 but the event on Sunday was probably enough to satiate any need I might have had to bask in public glory, at least for a while. The event did run a fair bit longer than I had imagined it would, and perhaps was more than a little theatrical; one slightly odd touch was the use of an unseen recorded announcer, supplanting the live presenter, the disembodied voice declaiming the roster of names in a plummy English accent.12 These kind of events always make me think about the subtle, tacit rules of how we are to behave in public. The recipients of the awards (and the viewers of the spectacle as well) all seemed to suffer the anxiety of influence of the Academy Awards – trying to remember to thank all of the important people, to be sincerely gracious, to be mercifully brief in their remarks. On these occasions, the quasi-public figure reveals for just a moment his quasi-private face and we are moved to ask ourselves if our confidence in these worthies is truly well placed. Withal, it was indeed moving to see some of the awardees genuinely touched by the honor bestowed upon them.
I am myself trying to do my best to become more tolerant of human frailty and foibles (my own included), and have tried to think about even the slight schtickiness of the event as something deriving from a deep human need.13 We are all of us but lonely nomads on an existential journey and a brief, fleeting acknowledgment of our efforts, a momentary sense of acceptance and approval from other members of our tribe – as unworthy as we may feel – does in fact seem to quicken our step, to allow a little light to seep in – maybe not yet reaching a level of prismatic luminescence in Robert Lawrence Balzer’s famous formulation, but neither consigning us to a heart of darkness.14
The Beard event is now on its way to becoming a memory; I’m still getting a number of ‘Atta boys from people, dropping me a note, or from those whom I’ve run into since the gig; these nice wishes are like the wonderful cumulonimbus pastel afterglow of a sunset. But cirrusly, the truth is really that as absolutely delicious as the attention and acclaim has been, (accompanied by a nice little uptick in sales), the pleasure derived from these epiphenomena is indeed of a different order from the absolute joy I was privileged to experience in the writing of the book itself. The pleasure of the writing was far quieter, but deeper (and of course sometimes admixed with terror and anguish);15 most importantly, it was a gift that was only for me to give to myself. The fact that there has been some kind of epilogue or coda to this extraordinary experience has really just been the Maraschino sur le gÃ¢teau. The fact that on some level I wasn’t quite sure I had it in me, has made the experience all the more poignant and satisfying. I will allow perhaps a few weeks to pass discreetly, enjoying a break in the action, but soon, very soon, it will be time to jump back into the game.