Good Food Awards: Authenticity, Soul and Integrity

Last October, when I mentioned to my cab driver that I was headed San Francisco to judge a food contest, he envisioned a pie-eating contest. There wasn't enough time during the ride to explain how food contests now include much more than State Fair iteration he was accustomed to. Despite the lack of awareness on his part, there's an army of foodies worldwide that are not only paying attention to good, thoughtful, hand-crafted food but celebrating it. Enter the annual Good Food Awards -- an opportunity for small, artisanal American producers with responsible sourcing practices to compete and be recognized for great-tasting beer, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, coffee, confections, pickles, preserves and spirits. For someone like me, with a personal and professional interest in the sustainable food movement, this is heaven, and to be asked to judge was an honor.

I recently returned to San Francisco for the Good Food Awards Gala Ceremony and Reception, in which the winners were honored and the guests treated to tastes of the products. The following morning, I shopped the Good Food Awards Marketplace, where winners set up stands to sell their goods at San Francisco's popular Saturday morning Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market. Slow Food legend Alice Waters of Chez Panisse graced the stage as Ceremony Keynote speaker, followed by acceptance speeches given by the top scoring winner from each category on behalf of their respective groups.

A true blind tasting, the judging was based only on a description of the product, ingredient list and the region in which they are made. It would be revealed to me at the Marketplace that the jam I enjoyed so much a few months earlier is made by Lennie LaGuire of Ellelle Kitchen (CA), using her friend Vivian's home grown fruit to make Backyard Grapefruit Marmalade with Campari. The peels had been painstakingly sliced by hand into thin, delicate strips which would be slowly simmered into a tender concoction of perfectly balanced sweet, sour and bitter flavors. This award-winning flavor was inspired by a sorbet recipe in River Cafe cookbook, and Lennie started making jam because she hated to see her own backyard apples, apricots and oranges go to waste. Resourcefulness is a common personality trait among this crowd.

When asked if a small, artisanal producer can continue to grow his or her business without sacrificing quality, Noah Marshall-Rashid of American Spoon (MI) pointed out that when working with wild fruits such as thimbleberry, "the fruit provides constraint." Bay Blue, a rustic-style, earthy, mildly pungent blue from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company (CA), was the top scoring cheese this year. The Giacomini family uses milk from their own herd of dairy cows raised on organic pasture, supplemented with feed grown on their land. Like availability of wild and backyard fruit limiting production, without more land, their farm and cheese production won't grow too much more.

In categories such as chocolate, coffee and confections, responsibly sourced ingredients are especially important, since local cacao, coffee beans and sugar aren't an option for most of the states. Many producers source ingredients directly from international growers, or look for Fair Trade and Organic certifications. Zoe's Chocolate Co. (PA), a winner in the confections category for Sesame Tahini Crunch, uses Callebaut Fair Trade Chocolate, buys local dairy and even raises bees for honey.

Underground Meats (WI), with two winning charcuterie products, worked with Roller Coaster Farm on breed selection, ultimately choosing Tamworth hogs that would be used for the coppa. The mom-and-pop farm exclusively supplies Underground Meats. Their other award winner, goat salami, is a result of a mutually beneficial arrangement with Dream Farm goat diary, which does not keep all their male goats for breeding. The farm found an outlet for bucks or "billy goats" that would otherwise be a burden in an operation that relies on milk production.

Anna Davies of Ritual Chocolate (CO) has a close connection to farming. Her father farms sugar beets in England. She struggles to find domestic non-genetically modified sugar beets, and is tempted to grow them herself. This dedication to sourcing quality sustainable ingredients is shared among all the winners, with a gold seal awarded to those who use certified organic ingredients.

Describing his craft as a "quest to change our industrial past," Chris Forbes of Sour Puss Pickles (NY) and his colleagues pickle in season so they can savor the foods out of season. Preserved foods allow seasonally abundant foods to last year-round.

The Slow Food movement refers to consumers as "co-producers" and promotes the concept that food should be good, clean and fair. Meeting the Good Food Award winners supports this idea that we all have a role in how our food is produced. By creating demand for these foods that have authenticity, soul and integrity, traditions will be kept alive as our collective purchases empower this movement. When "co-producers" learn why these foods at first glance appear to be expensive, the value will be revealed as we are educated about the labor-intensive practices and quality of the ingredients. The Good Food Award winners are leaders in this delicious revolution, creating change we can all enjoy.