Culinary Legend James Beard

February 13, 2009

(Editor's note: We're thrilled to welcome New York-based food lover, Seth Knight, as a contributing editor to Foodista.) If you have ever watched the Food Network, added herbs to a whole chicken, used olive oil, or hell, eaten out in the last 50 years, you must take a moment to give thanks to James Beard, the father and patron saint of American cooking. Beard understood the American palate preferred something familiar but also yearned for new and exciting all at the same time. Recently, I attended a symposium in New York City hosted by The New School celebrating the life of this food industry giant (literally, he was 6’4), and I found myself longing be a part of the club; whose members were taught by and touch by “Jim.” James Beard was born in 1903 in Portland, Oregon and was raised by his mother who ran a boardinghouse.  Beard was a sickly young child and it was then that he was able to experience the joy of food though his mother and their Chinese cook. He was often fed chicken jelly, a mixture of chicken broth, with the whites of an egg and its shell mixed, chilled and strained into gelatinous globs. James would later reminisce that “The Chinese have the perfect palate.” Beard indeed remembered every meal he ate with extreme detail and clarity, which spurred his ability to create in the kitchen. After failed attempts to become an Opera singer and Broadway actor, James opened a catering business Hors D’Oeuvre Inc in 1937. It was then he also wrote his first book Hors D’Oeuvres and Canapés. His book went against America’s growing addiction to “fast, easy and cheap.” Science had replaced fresh picked berries with JELL-O and homemade bread took a backseat to Bisquick. Beard’s books were the first to cross from a list of ambiguous instructions to a narrative. Betty Fussell, author of The Story of Corn recalled, “He was the middle man. Jim bridged my eighth grade home economics class and the select gourmets of the world. His books were “straight-talk” and were written the way Americans spoke.  And they were personal, as if to say, If I could do it, so can you…And now we’ll do it together.” She continued, “He was also from the west, a cowboy…so he cooked with that adventurous spirit.” According to Cinema Studies Professor Dana Polan, James Beard also sought to extend the pleasure of cooking beyond the housewife. As the host of the first stand-alone cooking show “I Love to Eat,” his primetime segment would encourage “man duties” such as stuffing a raw chicken or grilling. He even suggested that men be in charge for garnishing dishes, for they are the best decorators (we’ll get to that later). James Beard was a born teacher and loved having people around.  Judith Jones, who worked with everyone from Langston Hughes to Julia Child remembered, “Jim loved to get together with aspiring cooks and get close and instruct them. He would run to the telephone and field calls from women in Iowa, and instruct them on how to calibrate their ovens. And if anyone ever questioned the direction he was talking the recipe, he’d say, “We’re Americans, we can do as we please.” The always outspoken food writer extraordinaire Barbra Kafka, summed-up James Beard the best, saying, “Jim was gay! A lot of people fail to mention that. He was uncompromisingly gay, as was everything he did. His books were uncompromising, his life was honest, and his cooking was real.”



Greg Bulmash's picture

What a weird note to end on. If you were writing about Emeril, would the last paragraph emphasize that he was straight?

Not saying his homosexuality had no place in the bio. It's part of who he was. But *ending* on that note takes away from all his other accomplishments and leaves "gay" and "uncompromising" as they key words someone takes away.

It just sets the wrong ending tone for the article and made it quite possibly one of the worst-written pieces of journalism I've encountered in quite some time.

Mandy Evans's picture

Nice article, Seth. Thanks.

Sheri Wetherell's picture

Greg, I think you missed Seth's point and feel he did a wonderful job in honoring a great man and his life. I think being "uncompromisingly gay" is fabulous! In fact, I love him more for it! :) I'd call it a fine way to end an article.

Maggie_L's picture has a story about the James Beard Award nominations (or semi-finalists?) for 2009. Not the best round-up or piece of journalism known to man, but at least they're trying... I'm surprised the author of this post didn't mention the awards. I'm not saying that Mr. Beard wasn't a great guy who accomplished a lot, I'm just saying, these awards are a huge part of his legacy.