Last weekend's Good Food Awards transformed San Francisco's Ferry Building into a reinvented county fair with artisans from 26 states traveling to collect their prizes and share their wares. At Friday night's gala, red, white, and blue bunting and a stage framed by the American flag hinted at the organizer's ambitious national intentions for the fledgling awards: "We want the Good Food Awards to be for artisan food producers what the James Beard Awards are for chefs," said Sarah Weiner, its founder.
The pickles and preserves producers are channeling a rich vein of American food tradition—one that's been waiting to be channeled.
Weiner, the former Director of Communications for Slow Food International, built the awards on the solid base of 2008's successful Slow Food Nation conference, an event she helped organize. Like Slow Food Nation, the Good Food Awards are grounded in the philosophy that in order to be truly "good," food needs to be also clean and fair (although the organizers have been careful to adapt that particular Slow Food-branded "clean and fair" mantra, preferring "celebrating food that is tasty, authentic and responsibly produced").
In its inaugural year, the GFAs received 780 submissions and recognized 80 winners in seven categories: beer, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, coffee, pickles, and preserves. A combination of master tasters and enthusiastic amateurs judged and scored the products in blind tastings. Like the James Beard Awards, the awards honored food artisans by region, in order to represent diverse traditions across the country—and perhaps also to inoculate the awards against criticism of bias toward burgeoning artisan scenes in predictable locales like Brooklyn and Berkeley.
The festivities began on the mezzanine of the Ferry Building with an award ceremony that resembled a pep rally for the sustainable food movement. Chez Panisse's Alice Waters delivered the keynote address, saying, "We have an opportunity to morally define taste and rebuild our food culture into one that is rich, regional, and restores dignity to the people who feed us." Each speaker elaborated on that familiar theme by way of his or her chosen craft, and members of the crowd greeted each other with enthusiasm that was both rare and uplifting.
Artisan food pioneers like California preserves master June Taylor and pickling guru Sandor Katz presented the awards to their peers. After the proceedings, the several hundred guests mingled in the Ferry Building food hall to sample tasting plates constructed according to region and featuring the winning pickles, charcuterie, cheeses, jams, and chocolate.
The pickles and preserves categories were the ones with the most buzz, with outstanding products like Savory Brussels Sprout Relish from Ann's Raspberry Farm (Fredericktown, Ohio) and Apricot Chili Jam from Happy Girl Kitchen (Santa Cruz, California) attracting particular attention. Although many of the artisans in the competition were relatively new to food production, the pickles and preserves producers are channeling a rich vein of American food tradition—one that's been waiting to be channeled.
Awards are rarely without their controversies. Several high-profile finalists in the coffee category were disqualified for products that could not be certified as being free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. Some industry members have blamed rules poorly worded by the organizers for the miscommunication. The subject prompted heated debate in online forums, and sparked soul-searching about what sustainability really means in a complex, globalized industry. That debate can be only a step in the right direction.
My own view is that this first edition of the awards focused less on what was actually best in show and more on what was promising and deserving of recognition for its geographic location, innovation, and plain curiosity. The organizers did an admirable job of getting the word out beyond the usual channels, and of attracting artisans to send entries to a competition without an existing pedigree. The future success of the awards will rely on the momentum and credibility that last weekend can generate—and judging from the positive responses of participants after Saturday's sold-out public market, it seems that both they and the public are hungry for more.