Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On Saturday, July 6, in Oxford, England, the 19th annual Sophie Coe Prize was awarded to Barak Kushner for Slurping Towards Modernity: The Birth of an Iconic Japanese National Dish (Global Oriental, 2012). Awarded by the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, it is the longest-running and most generous prize for writing in food history in the English language. The highly regarded prize is named for Sophie Dobzhansky Coe, an anthropologist, author, translator, Radcliffe alumna, and one of Schlesinger Library’s most generous and important benefactors.

Sophie Dobzhansky was born in 1933 in Pasadena, California, to Natalie and Theodosius Dobzhansky, both Russian émigrés. She attended school in New York, where her father, a renowned geneticist, became a professor at Columbia. She spent most summers assisting him with fieldwork in California.

Coe's Radcliffe College yearbook photo. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryCoe's Radcliffe College yearbook photo. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDobzhansky graduated from Radcliffe College in 1955 with a major in anthropology. That summer she married Michael Coe, an anthropologist and archaeologist, and the couple began a decades-long personal and professional partnership. She continued her studies at Harvard, receiving a PhD in anthropology in 1964. Her 1967 translation of the ideas of Russian Mayanist Yuri V. Knorosov played a major role in legitimizing his previously derided theories.

As the Coes traveled the world for research, Sophie became an excellent and enthusiastic cook and developed a serious and scholarly interest in food and culinary history, especially that of native New World cuisines. Encouraged by the editor Alan Davidson, she began contributing essays to Petits Propos Culinaires, and in 1994, she published her highly regarded America’s First Cuisines.

Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryCourtesy of Schlesinger LibraryIn the following years, Coe continued her research on food history, especially chocolate which had played a large role in her first book. She was fully immersed in this research when she became ill. By the time an accurate diagnosis of cancer was made, she lived only a few more months. Michael Coe pledged to his wife that he would fulfill her plan to complete her book, and The True History of Chocolate (Thames and Hudson) was published in 1996 with Sophie D. Coe listed first as principal author. It is now in its third edition. In the preface, her husband writes: “lest it be thought that it was some kind of burden or sacrifice for me to finish Sophie’s book, I want to state here that it was a true pleasure . . . I have learned much from Sophie, even posthumously . . .”

Not surprisingly, Coe’s personal collection of books on culinary history was extensive. Collected over many years, from a wide geographic area and with an acute and discerning eye, the Sophie D. Coe collection is one of Schlesinger Library’s most important. Prior to her death, Coe had given the library an impressive and extensive community cookbook collection. Following her death, much of the rest of her collection joined it. Coe’s donation of nearly 1,000 volumes encompassed North and South America, the United Kingdom, Western and Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union, dating from the 18th century to the present, and a group of manuscript cookbooks that includes such treasures as Anne Burton’s spectacular 1742 vellum-covered cookbook. 

Anne Burton's 1742 vellum-covered cookbook. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAnne Burton's 1742 vellum-covered cookbook. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Today, the Sophie D. Coe Collection is a major resource on food history, and it joins other significant collections in the library including that of Julia Child, the American Institute of Wine and Food, and the Sontheimer Foundation. Coe’s books support scholars from around the world as they continue her pioneering work. It is fitting that the Sophie Coe Prize recognizes excellent writing on food history.