Bearded In One’s Lair
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. (( I don’t know offhand how many copies of the book we still have in our inventory, but there is likely also the thought that a few sales would also not hurt the always slightly challenged cash-flow situation. )), (( I am no stranger to the James Beard Foundation. A number of years ago I was awarded the coveted Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year award, which is in fact kind of a prestigious deal. And yet – I can actually say this – I really was unworthy of the award at the time. I hadn’t been making wine all that many years, but had recently been on the cover of the Wine Spectator magazine, and I was doing something very flashy and most importantly new – working with RhÃ´ne grapes in the New World in a slightly flashy way. So, I had novelty on my side, as well as the fact that the wines were well known in New York (and Beard certainly then and perhaps now is pretty Manhattan-centric). Further, it was the second time I had been nominated, so maybe people felt, “Oh, let’s just give it to him this time.” Receiving the relatively more prestigious award at such a precocious age perhaps made me slightly jaded. And yet, the book actually represents the accomplishment of a real thing – a work I have indeed labored over for years and years, rather than an award for being somewhat of an icon, that is to say, a Rorschach projection of the psyche of the greater Manhattan restaurant community.)) 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. (( Indeed, there are several aspects of l’affaire de Beendoon that are still a bit puzzling to me, beginning with its (I’m told) not to be sneered at commercial quasi-success, for which I am sincerely grateful. (The book is going into a second printing this week.) While I am proud of the quality of the writing and that the book presents a rather original take on modern wine culture, I am still greatly amazed that the book has, er, doon so well. It is a pastiche, part schtick, part earnest cri de coeur; this sort of genre-benders is generally believed to be quite challenging to the book-buying (and selling) public.)), (( What in fact has blown me away was the absolute riot of good wishes extended by a legion of Twitterers – “tweeps” as they are known in the parlance – after the announcement. Even if these communiqués were but modest gestures of approbation, they do have meaning; someone has taken the time to put some words into the ether, to say something kind. I still find it difficult to accept the fact that I may have actually doon good, and have tended to deploy a variety of psychic mechanisms – chiefly of the analyzing it to death variety – to minimize the accomplishment.)), (( The coolest thing that happened around the Beard awards was the response elicited in my seven-year old daughter, Melie, who happened to be back in Santa Cruz at home, taking a bath when the awards were announced. She was so totally excited about me winning that she jumped immediately out of the bathtub, whooping and hollering.)) 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. (( Many if not most restaurants are closed on Monday, thus making it the logical choice for restaurateurs and chefs.)) The Sunday event was focused on the journalistic and literary aspect of food and wine writing – monthly columns, articles, blogs, and of course books. (( The actual “Cookbook of the Year” award was announced on Monday, because this is in fact a pretty big deal for the awardee, with very significant positive repercussions in sales for the lucky author.)), (( While wine and food journalists do take themselves quite seriously, perhaps even to a fault, one couldn’t help but come away with the slight sneaking suspicion that our event, the Sunday event, was in fact a significantly lesser deal than the Monday gig, where the real superstar chefs were awarded. Hence, a bit (at least for me) of an overall “kids’ table”-like vibe to the evening.))
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. ((The idea of being in jail, of being deprived of one’s freedom, is so unsettling to me, that I couldn’t help wonder throughout the event, if the former Beard President, Len Pickell, was still in the slammer as the event was taking place. I visualized Len, clad in drab prison garb, juxtaposed with the many attendees garbed in formal black-tie attire. This sort of obsessive ideation does not do anyone any good. )) 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, ((Impressive use of an array of audio-visual pyrotechnics, lots of nice photo-montages/dissolves, but perhaps the whole thing was just a tad overdone – far too many categories of awards for one thing. (Best use of a semi-colon in a subordinate clause in the category of investigative reportage of glycemic foodstuffs in a non-recurring blog (mid-Atlantic division).)) 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, ((The most significant one being that I was unable to cadge a free ticket. I am also grossly lacking the Sitzfleisch to endure two very long dinners back-to-back.)) 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. ((Just seemed a bit supererogatory, as if the accent somehow enhanced the credibility of the result. It reminded me of the joke my father would often tell me about the real (or imagined) key to success: “Think Yiddish, talk British.”)) 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. ((While kitsch and sentimentality may well be aesthetically indefensible, their impulse arises from a place that is deeply human and therefore is not foreign to us. I do recommend reading all of Stanley Elkin’s work, most especially The Franchiser, The Dick Gibson Show and The Magic Kingdom for an exploration of this theme.)) 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. ((Heart was a Tannat-based wine that we imported for some years from Madiran.))
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); ((The satisfaction of laboring over a sentence or two for a good long while, polishing and sanding it until it reads just right is perhaps a bit like the pride a carpenter takes in constructing a well made mitered joint. The aesthetic frisson comes from the fact that the words sometimes just come as gifts from the gods that watch over us, toy with us, give us such amusing playthings with which to work, such as the words “aesthetic frisson.”)) 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.