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Behind The James Beard Awards: A Cookbook Judge's Journey

Weighing In With Salty Opinions

J. GarbeeWeighing In With Salty Opinions

The Husband: Your James Beard books arrived, several boxes. One weighed 50 pounds.

James Beard Reviewer: Ha, you're funny.

TH: I'm not kidding. I had to help Jerry [our UPS guy] carry them up the stairs.

JBR: Seriously? Shit.

Those text messages summarize what happened when this writer was asked to be a cookbook judge for the 2011 James Beard nominations. (Note: Judges can reveal that they are reviewers but not what cookbook category they judged.) "What an honor, it would be a pleasure," was our exact response. This will be fun and relatively easy, right?

A Test Kitchen Staff Wouldn't Stink

www.kpbs.orgA Test Kitchen Staff Wouldn't Stink

In theory, the nomination process for the James Beard cookbook awards isn't all that mysterious. There is, after all, a website page explaining it all. Four judges are selected for each category. Books are received. Recipes are tested. Ballots are filled out. Scoring is handled by an independent accounting firm. It's all very accurate, if not terribly informative.

Thanks to the January snow storms in New York, the books arrived a week late, intensifying a looming deadline. What happens next in a JBA judge's life depends on whether you have a home with an ample kitchen or a small apartment in Los Angeles. And whether you happen to be independently wealthy with dozens of daylight hours to dedicate to book reviews, or have a day job. The boxes sat on the living room floor for a week, then were slowly organized into piles during every available hour.

There was a pile of immediate discards, those books that made it clear there is no advance screening by the James Beard Foundation. (Anyone who published a book in 2010 could pay the $100 and submit their title.)

There was a need-to-delve-deeper pile, lest we pass up a hidden gem because it lacks big publishing house dollars.

Then there was the definitely-test-the-recipes pile. A reviewer is only required to test several recipes from the five books that he/she ultimately recommends for consideration. But testing recipes from just five books while serving as a JBA judge is never going to happen. It's impossible not to continually remember that if it were your cookbook up for review, you'd want a fair shake. Time to preheat the oven again.

When you finally have your picks narrowed down, you rank them in order of preference, giving reasons why you gave a certain title top billing. You write a thorough report evaluating the book itself and the success of the recipes, then sign, seal and deliver it to an accounting firm to tally the scores.

Then you wait. Like the nominees, anticipation builds for the announcement as you wait to find out which, if any, of your recommendations were among the final three picks in your category. (Our top two picks made the cut!)

Was it all worth it? Absolutely. As for what to do with those piles of cookbooks -- some good, some cringe-worthy -- the James Beard Foundation hopes that judges will "keep the books for your personal library." Clearly, they have more than a former bath towel closet to use for cookbook storage.

Click here for a complete list of the nominees for the 2011 James Beard Awards (JBFA) in journalism. (It includes cookbooks as well as several other categories.)