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THE HABIT OF EATING: Crook’s Corner Book Prize

book prize

A new literary prize has been concocted in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Crook’s Corner Book Prize was announced last week at the eponymous restaurant, which is known as an originator of Southern cuisine crazes. The award will honor an emerging writer of a debut novel set in the South, and will include $1,000, along with a free glass of wine with every visit to Crook’s Corner during the award year. Jill McCorkle will select this year’s winning novel.

Inspiration for the award comes from Anna Hayes, an author and retired lawyer who lives part-time in Chapel Hill and part-time in Paris. Hayes noticed that Parisian cafés like Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore honor their ties to the city’s current and historical literary community—whose ranks have included Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ernest Hemingway—by awarding reputable book prizes. As historian Jacques Barzun said that great periods of art “raise the temperature of the place where the artists congregate and argue and compete,” the influence of Paris’s vibrant literary tradition has raised the temperature of French literary cafés and the culture surrounding them.

“I think Crook’s understands that intersection of food and wine, art and literature,” Hayes said at the award’s launch party. She developed the idea with a group of friends and colleagues, many from the publishing world, who now form the Crook’s Corner Book Club Foundation. The group hoped the prize would be a “drop in the bucket” toward encouraging new writers and honoring the literary tradition of the South.

Publisher and foundation board member Elizabeth Woodman added, “When the Pulitzer announced they weren’t awarding a fiction prize this year, everyone was really miffed.” According to Woodman, this turn sharpened the group’s interest in creating a regional prize. 

“The big idea is to get other bars and restaurants to do the same thing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, to have a cluster here like they do in Paris,” Hayes said.           

Crook’s Corner is tucked into a curve in the land where Chapel Hill meets Carrboro. You might walk by it except for the pig on the roof, and if you’re from the area, you’ll likely have a built-in awareness of the restaurant. Crook is reputed to have communicated the higher possibilities of Southern food, not only to the nation but also to the South—as though the South whispered in her own ear how beautiful she was and heard it as news. Founding chef Bill Neal made shrimp and grits into a dish the whole region would be proud of.

Current chef Bill Smith supported the book award idea right away. An author himself, Smith wrote the well-loved cookbook Seasoned in the South. He’s at work on a new book about blue crabs for University of North Carolina Press, but says it’s hard to find time to write while working twelve-hour days, and that he’s not a very organized person, and that “sometimes you’re just tired.” Still, Smith is excited to see what the book prize will turn up.

“It really reflects the way we live in Chapel Hill,” Smith said. “We’re an intellectual town, and I think that’s the reason a lot of us have chosen to come here. It’s a place where, when I was a kid growing up in eastern North Carolina, I could not wait to get here.” Smith said the book prize was an easy partnership with the close-knit community. “I know most of these people,” he said, motioning to the folks who mingled around his cleared-out dining room, eating finger foods he had prepared in a style that fused Southern and French cuisines.

While waitstaff replenished dish after dish of Smith’s deviled eggs, chicken liver mousse, macaroons, and pig-shaped cookies, the Crook’s Corner bar was busy launching its new cocktail: The Book Prize. Created by former Crook’s general manager Shannon Healy, and based on the classic Algonquian cocktail, The Book Prize is now available at Crook’s Corner and Durham’s Alley Twenty Six for those who would prefer to forego the suffering involved in actually writing a book, but would still like to utter the words “book prize.”

“Hey, can I have a Book Prize?” Publicist Katharine Walton demonstrated. “You can just buy one. Ten dollars.” Walton went on to list the drink’s ingredients, befitting, she said, of the making of a first novel: Heaven Hill’s Larceny Bourbon, Cocchi Americano, house-made pineapple syrup, a dash of Angostura bitters, and no garnish.

“It’s a books and booze prize,” Walton said, referring to the glass of complimentary wine that comes with the cash prize. This perk of the award was met with hearty applause when Hayes announced it in her speech, and inspired jest from the crowd:

“What kind of wine?”

“That’s negotiable!”

“Depends on how good your novel is!”

Hayes allowed that the front-of-house staff at Crook’s might be feeling nervous about the free wine. She added, “Since the author can reside anywhere, perhaps they will live in Dallas or Prague, somewhere suitably inconvenient, and it will all be ok.”

Chef Bill Smith put it more bluntly, “Like she said, hopefully they’ll live in Little Rock or somewhere and they won’t turn into a horrible drunk.”

Entries for the Crook’s Corner Book Prize must be received by June 30, 2013. Click here to find out where to send your debut novel set in the American South.

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