The giant Hot Cheeto was mesmerizing.

It looked like some sort of fantastical, fractal coral constellation looming over the platters of Wagyu sliders. Then one of the staff snapped off a tubular limb, stuck it in an aluminum bag, and gave it a vigorous shake. It turned out the bag was full of dehydrated cheese powder. And it tasted close to the real junk-food ideal—almost good enough to justify the blizzard of faux-Cheeto dust that settled on everyone’s red carpet outfits.

I was at Esmé, the Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant that hosted the afterparty for this year’s James Beard Media Awards. As a first-timer to food media’s biggest, fanciest night, I assumed that whatever else happened, at least the snacks would be good.

I was emotionally prepared for the cute (mini Chicago-style hot dogs), the extravagant (Osetra caviar tins worth more than my rent, doled out by the bump), and even the experimental (duck waffles, doused in liquid nitrogen). But it was the deranged genius of that very lowbrow-highbrow sculptural snack that gave me a real, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment.

Cocktails were flowing at the award show afterparty.
Cocktails were flowing at the award show afterparty. Jeff Schear / Getty Images

Here’s the thing: in my experience, the behind-the-scenes world of media tends to be a whole lot less glamorous than it might appear from the outside. As much as I wistfully enjoy reading accounts of the “good old days” when Condé Nast and Time Inc. had wardrobe budgets and Mad Men-esque bar carts, I came of age in a post-financial crash landscape. The office carpet at my first journalism job was held together with duct tape.

But for one night, the industry dresses all the way up—no one better than Abi Balingit, author of Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed, whose giant octopus headpiece could truly only be described as iconic. The heels are high, the bows are tied, and there was a whole lot of Champagne going around.

All that glitz is an admittedly thin veneer. Michael Schulman once described the Oscars as “a shopping mall—behind a gold curtain,” a visual that resonates here. Unlike the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards, which are held at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Media awards, hosted before the party at Esmé, are held in a college auditorium.

Still, even sitting in a folding chair clutching a bag of Grey Poupon-flavored popcorn, it was impossible not to be starstruck. From Ruth Reichl to Toni Tipton-Martin (whose phenomenal Juke Joints, Jazz Clubs, and Juice: A Cocktail Recipe Book was nominated for the book award category Beverage with Recipes) there were a lot of people making the rounds whose work I’ve admired for years. And I know they tell you not to meet your heroes, but it’s pretty great when you do and you find out they’re both gracious and kind.

There were a number of award acceptance speeches that had me close to tears. Randy Lau, host of Made With Lau, brought his parents (who co-star on his YouTube channel) up on stage with him.

Host Michelle Miller hugged Sohla El-Waylly right after winning.
Host Michelle Miller hugged Sohla El-Waylly right after winning. Jeff Schear / Getty Images

Sohla El-Waylly spoke about sometimes wondering if she deserved to be in these spaces (the crowd responded with a resounding, “You do!”) and KJ Kearney, of @BlackFoodFridays, capped off his acceptance speech with a thank-you to all of his haters.

There were quite a few first-time nominees and winners. One remarked that since they’d never been particularly good at sports, they weren’t used to walking around with a physical medal (they’re heavier than you’d think). I cheered loudly for the authors of beautifully written books already sitting on my shelves—for Clarissa Wei’s Made In Taiwan, Natasha Pickowicz’s More Than Cake, and Yewande Komolafe’s My Everyday Lagos.

I was in attendance because my article “Saving the Hogs of Ossabaw Island” had received a nomination. It was also my first nomination for a James Beard award (and Gastro Obscura’s second ever). What’s more, it was for a story that I figured was just too much of a deep-cut for food journalism’s snazziest awards show.

“Saving the Hogs of Ossabaw Island” is the kind of piece I really love to write: an in–depth look at a complicated, true story that might otherwise not see the light of day.

Author Diana Hubbell stood on the red carpet after the ceremony.
Author Diana Hubbell stood on the red carpet after the ceremony. Courtesy of Clarissa Wei

It meant a lot that this publication believed in enough in this story to devote the time and financial resources for it. And although I told myself going into the ceremony that I didn’t care if I won, when the presenters for the Feature Reporting category called my name and asked me to come up to the stage, I just about lost it.

It’s neither quick nor cheap to produce this type of journalism. In order to reach Ossabaw Island, I had to apply for a special day permit, hire a guide with a boat, then roam around alligator-infested swamps. Tracking down all of my sources (one of whom no longer uses email or any form of electronic communication due to his arthritis) and pulling it all together took months, as well as the work of several editors.

Part of why I love working at Gastro Obscura so much is that we’re a publication committed to thoughtfully telling stories that aren’t necessarily trendy or topical. If you need other examples, go check out Mayukh Sen’s piece on the godmother of American tofu or Sam Lin-Sommer’s on Joyce Chen.

It’s been a few days now and although my medal is currently stashed away in a drawer with old postcards, the adrenaline high hasn’t completely worn off. As wonderful as it was to swan around in this glittery fever dream for an evening, I left Chicago excited to get back to my laptop. More than anything, I feel very lucky to get to tell cool stories about food with the people at Gastro Obscura. I’m looking forward to the next one.

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