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Food Writers Fret About James Beard's Humor Division

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This week's announcement of James Beard Foundation award nominees triggered another round of hand-wringing among food writers over whether the newly created humor award cheapens culinary journalism.

The concern was raised yesterday on a listserv maintained by the Association of Food Journalists. While the writer who ignited the discussion didn't respond to a message requesting an on-the-record comment, contributors to the debate cited worries that honoring an anonymous figure like Ruth Bourdain -- the Banksy of the food world, who's never been publicly identified -- could undermine the push to stiffen ethics in food writing. According to the Association of Food Journalists' guidelines for critics, "reviewers should write under their real names, not a pseudonym."

Still, as at least one respondent pointed out, the degree of difficulty associated with humor writing makes it hard to assail the nominees, no matter which names they use.

(As City of Ate readers know, one of the nominees goes by the name Alice Laussade. We fully expect our very own Alice to claim the prize for her feature story on State Fair food, thereby ending the discussion about Ruth Bourdain.)

Dorothy Kalins, who chairs the journalism awards committee, is also unswayed by arguments that the James Beard Foundation should only celebrate the achievements of writers who make phone calls and take notes (which, it should be noted, Alice did. I remember seeing her through my fried beer haze at the Big Tex Choice Awards).

"I can only say that the day humor cheapens food journalism is the day no one smiles as they bite into a cheeseburger, or kibitzes a cook, or drops a chicken," Kalins emails.

Kalins says Ruth Bourdain's nomination hasn't incited any serious backlash. According to Kalins, the award was created to acknowledge the contributions of "the thousands of food writers who celebrate the joy of the table with a wry turn of phrase or a nod to the comedy in the human condition, and the human kitchen."

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