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  • Writer's pictureMax Sinsheimer

The James Beard Award for Reference & Scholarship Goes To...

Cathy Donnelly and The Oxford Companion to Cheese!!!

Cathy brought me along as her date, and it was a thrilling and memorable night. (Memorable despite the dangerous ring of cocktail and wine stations that we circulated around during the cocktail hour, and the attentive waiters that filled our glasses during the awards.) The Reference & Scholarship award came unbelievably quickly, sometime during Chef Maricel Presilla's excellent shrimp ceviche appetizer, and there wasn't time to feel anxious.

At one point four years ago this book existed as an idea that I wrote into a proposal. It was approved at an editorial meeting, and almost immediately became this wild, exuberant, vital collaboration. Most books involve lonely toil. Ours was undoubtedly the least lonely, because Cathy and I had an outstanding editorial board and 325 contributing authors.

I thought it might be fun to look back on some highlights from the past four years.

It began with another Companion: The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver (Brooklyn Brewery). That book published in Fall 2011 to sales numbers that publishers - especially academic publishers - dream of. Put simply, we rode a tidal wave of interest in craft beer. In October 2011 I went to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, and came back very confident in the book's prospects. About the only award the book didn't win that year was a James Beard, though it was nominated. You can see our (mock) confusion in the last picture.

The Companion food/drink series was going to be discontinued after Beer; suddenly I had a mandate to sign up others. I wrote to Garrett and asked him which subjects he'd do next if he were me. He said cheese, spirits, and cocktails. (The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails will publish in a combined volume soon, edited by Dave Wondrich.)

Garrett has a close friend named Aaron Foster, who at the time was a cheese buyer for Murray's. (He now owns Foster Sundry in Bushwick.) One day in April 2012 we headed to Greenwich Village, where Aaron gave us a tour of the cheese caves. Afterwards, at the Blind Tiger, I picked Aaron's brains about possible Editors-in-Chief.

One person Aaron recommended was Jason Hinds, a partner at Neal's Yard Dairy, an excellent cheesemaker and retailer in London. At the Cheesemongers' Invitational in Queens that year Aaron introduced me to Jason (he's the one kissing Aaron in the first picture). In July I visited Jason at NYD while I was in the UK for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. I returned to NYC and we began thinking about the editorial board.

Jason ultimately had to decline the Editor-in-Chief position, since NYD was in the midst of a rapid expansion. But he put me in touch with Cathy Donnelly at UVM, who was just as lovely, knowledgeable, and well-connected in the cheese world as Jason had promised. She agreed to serve as EIC, and we were off!

Cathy and her husband Scott own an inn in Greensboro, VT, the ideal location to gather our editorial board for planning weekends. (Since we had board members living in the UK, France, Italy, Greece, and Germany, not everyone could make it, but we communicated often by email or phone). Once we visited Jasper Hill Farm, just down the road. Mateo Kehler, the co-founder of Jasper Hill, always provided cheesy sustenance for our meetings. (He also wrote the Foreword, and provided lots of good advice in the planning stages.)

Slowly we nailed down the headword list (the list of entry topics in an encyclopedia), and jotted two or three potential contributor names to every one of the 850+ headwords. There was a lot of conceptual work in the early days, figuring out how to handle regional entries, which of the 1400+ cheese styles should get their own entries, navigating naming and trademark disputes, etc.

The next part I don't have pictures for: 2.5 years of inviting contributors to author entries, reminding them of deadlines, shuffling submitted manuscripts back and forth to the editorial board for two rounds of review, adding in cross-references to related entries, selecting images to accompany entries, clearing image permissions, reading first and second page proofs, and and writing jacket copy. Not glamorous!

But then... the book launch! Fittingly, at Murray's, where it all began.

I'm so proud of our team. And I hope that, whether you are studying for the American Cheese Society's CCP exam, or merely have a casual interest in learning the history of different cheeses, you open up the Companion for years to come.

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