Sour Grapes

Sour Grapes

Congratulations to Jennifer McLagan, Toronto-based writer and food stylist. Her book, Bones, just won the James Beard Foundation award for best cookbook on a single subject. Jennifer chose not to be present at the great gala in New York, preferring to linger at her other home in Paris where, she tells me, the lilacs are currently in blossom, asparagus and strawberries are everywhere and the first cherries from Provence have now arrived. I don’t blame her for staying away. Everybody said one of the other two books in her category, Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, was a shoo-in, and though Jennifer is well-known in Canada and her native Australia, she cheerfully admits to being “a nobody” in U.S. culinary circles. So she thought to spare herself the lonely ordeal of ending up an also-ran at the Beards.

I have been in that position three times now, and it’s an odd sensation. The first time was for a journalism award in 2001. The fierce joy of the nomination had faded in the weeks leading up to the event itself and I arrived at the Marriott hotel on Times Square feeling like a total rube. It didn’t help that the moths had eaten holes in my only good suit and I was squeezed into a shiny garage-sale double-breasted garment that made me look like a disco victim from the ’70s. I knew no one and no one knew me so I stood at the edge of the reception eating my weight in canapés and trying hard not to catch anybody’s eye. When the crowd moved to the ballroom for dinner and the awards I found I had been put at a table right next to the kitchen door along with other nominees from out of town—all of them friendly but nervous. It reminded me of the scene from Animal House where Flounder and Pinto are steered firmly to the losers’ couch to sit beside Mohammed, Jugdesh, Sydney and Clayton. “If we do win,” said the woman beside me, “you realize it’s actually physically impossible to reach the stage from here.” None of us were called.

It was the same story a year later (though I was better dressed)—the distant table of strangers, the tiny ember of hope that this time I might be chosen, the tight smile and polite applause when someone else took the biscuit. “It’s an honour just to be nominated,” said the guy from Kansas, and he was right—so why the emotional cocktail of disappointment, cynicism and wounded pride, garnished with a twist of self-reproach at having an ego that bruised so easily? The closest equivalent is that feeling of suckered-again deflation you used to get when the Leafs were bounced from the play-offs. To have come this far…

The third time was different because Lucy Waverman was beside me and our book was nominated for a prize at the big black-tie gala, not the journalism awards. Lucy knows everyone and there were other friendly faces around—our Canadian publishers and also Alison Fryer from the Cookbook Store who kept up a wrily hilarious commentary on the elbow-to-elbow walkabout feast following the ceremonies. Super-friendly author and multi-Beard winner Corby Kummer took me under his sociable wing, but there was no escaping the fact that the American culinary scene is a series of tightly competitive, concentric circles and this was their family jamboree. I still had the feeling of being a crasher at somebody else’s party. Such shameful ingratitude! At least they were spared my Sally Fields-style acceptance speech.

Writers from Canada have done well by James Beard in recent years—Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid twice victorious, Gina Mallet winning for Last Chance to Eat, Natalie Maclean a regular champion at the journalism awards, and now Jennifer McLagan’s triumph. I applaud them wholeheartedly without even the tiniest trace of jealousy. My envy is all for the taste of Provençal cherries under the lilacs on a sunny morning in Paris.

In other news: Chris McDonald’s new wine and tapas bar, Cava, opened on Friday night with a “trust-me” preview menu of 10 tapas priced at $30 per person. Cava is in Delisle Court at 1560 Yonge Street, 416-979-9918, and McDonald’s eloquent manifesto can be perused at