August 2010 Newsletter

By Bill Holland

Once again I’ve been thumbing through  The James Beard Celebration Cookbook
for something good to cook – and it will be good.

The book is a tip of the hat – well, many hats – to a big, robust fellow
often called the “Dean of American cookery.”

James Beard (1903-1980) was an extraordinary man – a bon vivant. a culinary
explorer and historian, a great cooking teacher and a hell of a cook; in
all, a bold and assured pathfinder without whom the increasing
sophistication of culinary matters in this country would have been seriously

This particular book isn’t well-known, but it’s not rare nor expensive
either. It’s sort of a sampler.  But, like the remarkable and very
successful “The Silver Palate,” it contains some wonderful recipes that I
turn to again and again, and I want you to know about it.

It’s an aptly titled volume, an extraordinary outpouring of affectionate and
poignant stories about the grand old man by some of the country’s leading
cooking teachers, culinary writers, chefs, and restaurateurs. It was
initially published 20 years ago.

Most of the recipes contributed by these now-well-known friends, were ones
he created or remembered and re-created in teaching classes or parties they
attended. Many were published throughout the years in his 22 cookbooks.

We have many books available by Beard, but I turn to this book as a shortcut
often. My own copy has about a dozen bookmarks of dishes I’ve tried!

Excuse a bit of history for you younger readers who might only have seen his
name or know his work slightly.

Beard, who began cooking and writing in the ‘40s, hit his stride near the
end of the ‘50s. Frankly, before him, the culinary waves on our shores were
puny. In a quote by writer Nora Ephron about the American food scene circa
1968, she wrote: “In the beginning, there was Beard, and there was curry
(she means ‘50s-‘60s Americanized dinner party “curry”), and that was about

The book is a testimony to one of his talents – a boundlessly energetic
cooking teacher who convinced acolytes that cooking was fun and do-able –
that many of the contributors in the book who soon became well known were
either former students or younger colleagues who benefited from his

A whirl-a-wind even as a child, Beard learned to cook at his
mother’s knee (and his mother’s cook’s knee) in Portland, OR with fresh
ingredients from local outlets, including the bounty of the Pacific Ocean.

As a young adult, he was unsuccessful in his efforts to become an actor or
opera singer. He hit New York in the ‘40s, found early success in the
preparation of hors d’oeurves in a society catering outfit, then followed
that with a small cooking school and culinary magazine articles in “Gourmet”
and elsewhere, and finally books. He soon skyrocketed to fame in 1959 with
his landmark The James Beard Cookbook (it was a pocket paperback!)

Beard struggled successfully to bridge the gap in the late ‘40s and ‘50s
between the elite “gourmands”  who wrote about food and dining in
specialized magazines like Gourmet to a special (frankly, well-off) few in
the post-war era, and the rather joyless and nutrition-oriented home
economics cookbook authors of the time offered their efforts to the
proletariat housewife.

Importantly, Beard was able to create a new voice, create a middle ground
between the gourmands and the home-economics crowd, one that tried to
convince readers that cooking (and eating with friends) should not only be
nutritious but also be enjoyable and maybe artful.

He was a natural performer. A jovial, always-plump giant at 6’4”, Beard was
full of brio and positively radiated and infectious passion for food.
Apparently he also had what's now called taste memory. They say he could
recall and usually reproduce meals he'd had throughout the many decades in
his life in the U.S. as well as in Italy, France, and other countries.

He recognized talent when he saw it, and would make sure others took note.
One could strongly suggest that without Beard’s gates-opening enthusiasm,
Julia Child and many others included in this wonderful book would not have
been so successful. It was Beard who introduced Child to the food power
elite (such as it was), and raved about Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Also, without him, there would probably never have been the TV cooking show
as we know it. Not that many know he was a pioneer in the medium, back in
the late ‘40s. But alas, his time has passed, and he will, I fear, soon be
relegated to the history books. That’s why I’m writing this paean.

After his passing, The James Beard Foundation set up his Greenwich village
apartment as somewhat of a living shrine, and established the group that now
presents awards yearly to new cookbook authors, chefs, restaurants, and
culinary trend-setters.

This promotionalism is very much is keeping with Beard, who, in the era
before there was a “foodie” culture that could sustain him, was not afraid
to take a consultant stipend from a meat packaging company, a culinary
gadget manufacturer, hotel or even tobacco company so that he could provide
‘50s and ‘60s America with good cooking tips.

Reading through this important book makes me slightly melancholy, because it
underscores the turn of the generational page. Nearly all of the pals and
celebrants who offer stories and recipes here, not just Child, but Jacques
Pepin, M.F. K. Fisher, Barbara Kafka, Paula Wolfert, Craig Claiborne, Alice
Waters, and many others, have now either now grown old or have left us. As I
scan the names of the major contributors, I notice none were even born in
the ‘50s, and most came into this world in the ‘30s or ‘40s. Others were
Beard’s contemporaries, born in the teens or twenties, and  few others were
born before World War I.

Ah, well. The recipes are timeless.

I ran across Beard in the ‘60s through that landmark Dell paperback, because
some wise soul who worked for the Peace Corps in D.C. had included it in my
“book locker” provided for those so-innocent souls who heeded the call of
JFK and volunteered for a low-income, two-year tour in third-world
countries. It is a basic cookbook, but brimming in “try this variant.” I
liked his approach.

 But here’s an odd and regrettable thing – and if I’m wrong, please email
me: There’s evidently precious little video or film footage of Beard. A few
scattered interviews. Very little remains for us to see of the man who was
known coast to coast for several decades as The Go-To Guy for Food, who had
one of the earliest TV cooking show and even did a bunch of TV episodes on
the Today and Tonight Shows. Most of it erased, lost, gone.

After combing the Internet, I was able to find a DVD produced by Oregon
Public Broadcasting entitled “A Cuisine of Our Own” that features perhaps
two minutes total of him talking to a film crew at a cooking class in Oregon
in what must have been the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. Other than that, there
are  just snippets. It’s a shame.

Well, as to this book. The original edition was published in 1990 by Morrow,
and was popular enough to get a new lease on life by Wings Books in 1995,
but it’s now out of print, and copies are getting more difficult to find.
Both are beautifully designed, with b&w photos of the contributors above
their Beard-inspired recipes. I’m not trying to draw you to this book
specifically, since I only have one copy of the original and one of the
reprint, but to the man and his oeuvre.

If you go to the CookbookBazaar website, just type  his name in the search
function. This and his other books will present themselves, including a
hard-to-find signed copy of Beard on Food (1974). If you’re new to him or
want to brush up on his contributions, do mosey around a bit – it’ll be
worth your while. His enjoyment in preparing really good food, and sharing
it with friends around the table– those things don’t go out of style.