Ruth Reichl was standing in front of a gigantic American flag hanging like a banner along the wall of the Ferry Building on Friday, January 13th. It was a backdrop worthy of any Presidential hopeful stumping for votes in the heartland, but here, the stars and stripes were evoking not just Mom and apple pie but Mom's apple pie, and maybe great-granddaddy's moonshine, and now their kids' apple-whiskey chutney and curried cauliflower pickles. It was time to welcome the room of makers and media, gathered in San Francisco for the 2nd annual Good Food Awards, a celebration of the best of artisanal food production from coast to coast.
"Most of you are too young to have grown up in the white-bread world that I did," said Reichl. Every cheese was sliced and wrapped in plastic, all strawberries were huge and tasted like cotton. This changed, slowly, through the work of pioneers like Alice Waters, sitting off to one side of the podium, as well as dozens of other food pioneers. Reichl remembered the first time she walked into The Cheeseboard, in Berkeley and was handed a taste of Laura Chenel's Sonoma-made fresh goat cheese. Reichl lived on it all that summer, and knew that she had to meet the woman making something so new (to American tastes) and so delicious. Then there was "Artists of the Earth," an article she wrote for California magazine in the early 1980s, profiling nine men and women making a difference in the food world and beyond. "They are some of California's most valuable resources," she wrote then, "...perfectionists who work very hard not because they expect to get rich but simply because they expect to get the best."
Walking through Chino Ranch with Alice a few years later, she was amazed at the quality of produce surrounding them. Corn so sweet it needed no cooking. Strawberries so intensely fragrant that every fellow traveler on the small plane she and Alice were taking from San Diego to Oakland came up and begged for a berry off the flats they were carrying in their laps. "Every person said, 'I forgot strawberries could smell like that! Please, can I just have one?'" she recounted. "And I watched Alice give away that night's dessert for Chez Panisse, because how could she say no?"
"Back then, I never could have dreamed how huge the change was going to be. We now live in a country that has the best produce in the world...We are reclaiming our edible heritage. "Thank you for giving us the America we once dreamed we could have."
After this came the awards, 99 products in eight categories (coffee, chocolate, charcuterie, pickles, preserves, cheese, beer, spirits). There were no single winners; instead, each category had a fat handful of top picks, from seven coffee roasters to 14 preserve-makers. The winners, like food-world Olympians, got medallions stamped in the shape of the tools of their trade--a cleaver, a canning jar--strung on wide red-white-and-blue ribbons to hang around their necks.