BEARD, JAMES. Born in Portland, Oregon, Beard (1903–1985) spent most of his life in New York, spanning the continent as the father of American cooking and as the larger-than-life champion of American foods, reveling in their glorious abundance and variety. His father was a "Mississippi gambler type" who skipped town while his English mother, Mary Elizabeth Jones, an émigré to Portland, firmly ruled her son, her Gladstone Hotel, and the Chinese chefs in its kitchen. In his culinary memoir Delights and Prejudices (1969), Beard gives a fine account of growing up amid the backstairs comedy of the Gladstone, a drama which no doubt influenced his lifelong passion for the theater.
At nineteen he went to London to become an opera singer and then to New York to become an actor. To keep from starving, he opened a catering shop called Hors d'Oeuvre with friends in 1937 and three years later published his first cookbook, Hors d'Oeuvres & Canapes, followed by Cook It Outdoors in 1941. By combining food with showmanship, he channeled his theatrical energy into writing and single-handedly created the drama of American food. Over the next four decades—after a stint in the army and the United Seamen's Service, opening navy canteens—he would publish more than twenty books in addition to making extensive contributions to House & Garden 's single-subject cookbook series and writing numerous articles for newspapers and magazines. With the publication of The James Beard Cookbook in 1959, he became America's leading food guru, preaching the gospel of honest American food to those who had earlier looked exclusively to Europe for guidance in all things culinary.
At six feet four inches, weighing 310 pounds at his heaviest, he was as large as his subject, and his persona matched his message. He was among the first to promote both on television, when he appeared with Elsie the Cow for the Borden Company on NBC in 1946. He also initiated a new style of domestic cooking school to urge ordinary home cooks to take pleasure in their food. In 1955, he began the James Beard Cooking School in New York and soon added one in Seaside, Oregon. By teaching in all sorts of venues across the country, he created a network of devoted followers who continued to spread the word after his death.
That word was "fun." During the postwar decades of affluence, he taught Americans, who had survived the Depression, World War II austerity, and native Puritanism, to have fun with cooking, eating, and living in the American way. His 1972 American Cookery defined and celebrated the tradition of American cooking he had inherited from a body of cookbooks that began before the Civil War with Mary Randolph and Eliza Leslie and stretched to his contemporaries Irma Rombauer and Helen Evans Brown. While his appetite for traveling was as large as his girth, and while he spent much time in France, he sieved the flavors of other countries through his own American palate to create a menu that was always exciting because of the new combinations it offered. While his meals and menus were eclectic, he would say that it was the cook, not a country or a culture, that unified a meal. His culinary library in the 12th Street townhouse he owned in Greenwich Village was vast, and he was instrumental in directing his cooking students toward the literature of cooking.
In 1986, his house became a living theater honoring his name and his mission as the headquarters for the James Beard Foundation, where chefs from around the world showcase their skills. Through events such as the annual celebration of Beard's Birthday and Beard Awards for members of the food industry, the Foundation has established a generous scholarship fund and a national network of chefs, writers, and restaurateurs.
See also Child, Julia; Cookbooks.
Beard, James. Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles: Letters to Helen Evans Brown. Edited by John Ferrone. New York: Arcade, 1994.
Clark, Robert. James Beard: A Biography. New York: Harper-Collins, 1993.
Jones, Evan. Epicurean Delight: The Life and Times of James Beard. New York: Knopf, 1990.
Brioche loaf or good white bread, sliced very thin
White onions, peeled and sliced very thin
Mayonnaise, preferably homemade
Cut the brioche or bread into rounds with a biscuit cutter. Spread the rounds lightly with mayonnaise. Divide into two batches. Arrange a layer of onion slices on one batch and top with the other. Press together gently. Roll the edges in mayonnaise and then in the chopped parsley. Pile on a serving dish and refrigerate for several hours before serving.
—Love and Kisses, p. 364
"It has always been my contention that the people of the Western European countries ate pretty dull food until the discovery of America."
"Like the theater, offering food and hospitality to people is a matter of showmanship, and no matter how simple the performance, unless you do it well, with love and originality, you have a flop on your hands."
"The kitchen, reasonably enough, was the scene of my first gastronomic adventure. I was on all fours. I crawled into the vegetable bin, settled on a giant onion and ate it, skin and all. It must have marked me for life, for I have never ceased to love the hearty flavor of raw onions."
—Delights and Prejudices