Tribute: James Beard Uncensored
This author and TV personality was one of the first to make cooking seem more like play than like work. Henry Alford finds Beard's eccentricities equally entertaining.
He looked like a giant, gleeful baby. that's what attracted me to James Beard when, as a teenager, I first saw his picture in the 1970s on the cover of my family's copy of The James Beard Cookbook, the tenth of his 22 books about food. The photograph is of the redoubtable dean of American cooking wearing a bow tie and apron, hovering over a platter of meat and sauerkraut; his expression is so rapturous as to appear slightly unhinged. Intrigued, I tried various recipes in the book—a collection of fairly voluptuous versions of American classics (think Joy of Cooking, but add several thousand sticks of butter)—including potatoes hashed with cream, apple crisp and a rich fudge nut cake. I longed to be man enough to douse a lobster in Cognac and then heed its recipe's dazzling final instruction, "Ignite and blaze."
As I grew older, I started to collect Beard's books and to read about him; I was delighted to discover that his life was as picturesque as the photograph that had initially drawn me to him. The first celebrity to emerge from the country's burgeoning postwar fascination with food, Beard championed American food at a time when French food reigned supreme. Indeed, he did much to help Americans overcome their insecurities regarding their own cuisine. After establishing his name with the 1949 publication of The Fireside Cook Book, Beard went on to found influential cooking schools in Oregon and New York City. "In the beginning," his friend and colleague Julia Child once pronounced, "there was Beard." That the country's most prestigious culinary awards are named after him is testament to the respect he still garners on the centenary of his birth and almost two decades after his death.
Bald, 6 foot 3 and known to tip the scales at 300 pounds, James Beard emanated a sunshiny beam and a slightly regal air. Given that part of Beard's contribution to American cooking was to free it from endlessly practical home economics, and to help make it fun, it is interesting to learn about one of his, let's say, more personal quirks. Within the privacy of his New York City house, Beard gravitated toward one of two states of semi-dress. First, he liked to lounge about in custom-made kimonos, sash untied, giving way to the occasional dose of bodily candor. Second, he liked to cook in the buff. An inveterate early riser, Beard would sail into the kitchen directly from the bath, whereupon he would launch into a flurry of food preparation and telephoning. "He had to emphasize that he was frying his bacon and eggs in the nude," one friend who had received a dispatch from the clothing-optional front told Beard biographer Evan Jones. "I couldn't resist saying, 'Don't let the hot fat hit the hot fat!'"
Genius isn't always pretty. But James Beard never cared about appearances. "The world's great gastronomic whore," as he described himself, Beard not only encouraged the consumption of alcohol and pasta at breakfast but also sang the praises of foods that cannot be considered wildly popular—his Fowl and Game Cookery contains recipes for squirrel and muskrat; elsewhere he pays homage to lark pâté, pineapple soufflé and frankfurters cooked in raspberry preserves and black pepper.
Indeed, my own interest in Beard was amplified in 1995 when I bought his New Fish Cookery and, in an introduction to a recipe, read a pronouncement that I would find myself uttering in a variety of situations: "Here are grunions at their best." That anyone can ennoble the humble grunion—a fish that probably derives its name from the Spanish word for grumble or grunt—reminds me that some of us live a mere life, while others conduct a resounding vie. This inspires.
Beard's zesty and no-holds-barred approach to food was evident early in his life. In his book Delights and Prejudices, he recounts his first "gastronomic adventure": "I was on all fours," writes the man who weighed 14 pounds at birth. "I crawled into the vegetable bin, settled on a giant onion and ate it, skin and all." He was not professionally trained as a cook. His mother was a caterer and boardinghouse chatelaine who taught him what she knew; his father, who'd traveled by covered wagon from Iowa to Oregon, taught young Jim—who would go on to become the first nationally known exponent of backyard barbecuing—campfire cooking. Ignite and blaze.
But food wasn't James Beard's main interest as a young man; he wanted to go into opera or theater. Though he was successful at securing a few professional gigs—as Buddha in a prologue at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and Daddy Warbucks on Portland radio—in 1939 he opened a catering company with friends in New York, the city where he would spend most of his life.
The company specialized in hors d'oeuvres. (Beard was appalled, when he went to cocktail parties, at the lack of originality in the canapés and finger foods, which he gave the precious-sounding moniker "doots.") The catering concern led to Beard's first book, Hors d'Oeuvre and Canapés. He would later go on to star in television's first cooking show (I Love to Eat, sponsored by Borden's Elsie the Cow), work on boil-in-bag technology for Green Giant and help found Citymeals-on-Wheels, a charity that feeds the homebound elderly.
Beard still matters today, and not simply because of his books or the thousands of students to whom he taught cooking. Rather, seen in a contemporary light—one in which media-star chefs provide only crowd-pleasing dishes—Beard and his sometimes idiosyncratic ideas about food emerge as highly individual, if not renegade. Granted, Beard wasn't above corporate shilling (which had at least one unexpected pitfall: Once, while working for Green Giant in Minnesota, he got trapped in a pebbled-glass shower after eating a large meal and had to call for help; he was encouraged to use more soap to induce egress). But in the main, he was an avatar of originality and was willing to exploit any avenue of expression that presented itself in order to spread his message that cooking need not be boring.
And so we find him hiring a tinsmith to construct a six-foot-wide pan to make an enormous crêpe suzette for a talk show appearance; and so we find him plunging splits of Champagne into sausages and hot sauerkraut, the Champagne spurting as Beard made his dramatic entrance into a room. Indeed, few food writers convey their sense of delight in the topic at hand quite like Beard: "In one of the most gloriously self-indulgent episodes in my life, I literally ate my way through a book I was working on," he writes in Beard on Food. The introduction to one recipe in Hors d'Oeuvre and Canapés runs, "Eye-filling? Yes! Appetite-provoking? Yes!! Thrilling to the taste? Yes!!! It's called: Melon Mélange."
Today, most people know Beard's name from the James Beard Foundation culinary awards. It's only fitting that the oft-called "Oscars of food" should have been inspired by the affable showman who was James Beard. He was an individual unafraid of risk. He was, and continues to be, so much more than "grunions at their best"; he is a speckled rainbow trout, alive and flapping. ³
Henry Alford is the author of Big Kiss and Municipal Bondage.