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Authors: James Beard
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Foreword: Cooking with James Beard by Betty Fussell
Introduction: “An American Attitude Toward Food” by James Beard
FIRST COURSES AND COCKTAIL FOOD
HOT, COLD, AND FROZEN DESSERTS
I am grateful to Elizabeth Beier at St. Martin’s Press, for asking me to take part in this celebration of James Beard’s work, and for introducing me to John Ferrone, the charming and erudite executor of Beard’s estate. Thanks also to Michelle Richter and Elizabeth Curione, for keeping the project on track. Copy editor Leah Stewart, proofreader Jane Liddle, and designer James Sinclair are consummate professionals, and their invaluable contributions show on every page of this book.
My partner, Patrick Fisher, and kitchen manager, Diane Kniss, took on the unenviable job of managing hundreds of recipes. The nuts and bolts of transcribing photocopies into Word documents fell to a dream team of food lovers, some of whom are also cookbook writers who brought their own appreciation of Beard to the chore: Peggy Fallon, Judy Kreloff, Johnisha Levi, Charles Pierce, Carl Raymond, Debbie Schulman, and Dédé Wilson.
COOKING WITH JAMES BEARD
“Don’t gussy up spareribs with all that gunk,” the chef boomed at us as we crowded around some naked ribs in the basement kitchen of his brownstone. “Just sprinkle with plain salt and pepper and half an acre of garlic.” At 6 feet 4 inches and three hundred pounds, the chef seemed to take up half an acre himself. He certainly took up most of the kitchen. This was thirty years ago, in the now revered “James Beard House” on Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village, where the owner gave cooking classes to small groups of amateurs over the decades. I knew in 1981 how lucky I was to be among them.
Thirty years before that, I’d opened my very first cookbook, which happened to be
The Fireside Cook Book
of 1949. I was a newlywed and knew nothing. It was James Beard who taught me how to boil water, in my own language. He spoke to me directly. He gave me confidence. This was decades before Americans got all “gourmeticized” and learned how to cook French. Beard was as down-home American as “easy side up” and “a cuppa Joe.” He taught us to cook American, in our own kitchens, with the simplest of foods, like garlic and onions, and lemons and parsley, and bread. He taught us how to bake our own bread. This was new!
He wasn’t a schoolmarm like Fanny Farmer, uptight about thrift and nutrition. Nor a phony marketing brand like Betty Crocker. He was real, he was male, and he was big—he talked big, he thought big—American style. He spoke to guys outdoors at their grills and to gals indoors at their new electric stoves. He celebrated real food, what was fresh, and local, and growing anew after the deprivations of the Depression and the War. He celebrated our new sense of freedom, bounty, and largesse, both in his person and on the page. He was born to cook and to teach because he wanted to share his joy in being alive and savoring every sensuous moment, which is what food is for. Before Julia Child or Craig Claiborne or Jacques Pépin, or the hundreds of kitchen gurus who followed, Beard was the first to reshape the American palate at that moment of self-discovery when America found its new place in the world.
came from mattered. Like Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard was a Westerner. Born thirteen and a half pounds on May 5, 1903, Beard learned to cook as he learned to breathe. His father, Jonathan, was “a Mississippi gambler type who wore a red carnation, smelled of fine soaps and colognes, and was loved by all the ladies,” Beard wrote. His mother, Elizabeth Jones, was an English adventuress turned hotel owner, who paused briefly at age forty-two to birth a son. She brought her child up the same way she ran her hotel, which was sold a few years before James’s birth. Beard described her as “That incredible woman who was my father.”
That incredible woman had arrived in America at age sixteen, under the guise of governess, to travel through America and most of Europe and Central America before she settled in Portland, Oregon, and bought the Gladstone Hotel in 1896. Despite the hotel’s dignified name, Beard remembers Portland as a raunchy port of waterfront hearties and sporting ladies with their pimps. There were plenty of French and Italian immigrants to hire as hotel cooks, but they would catch gold fever and head for the Yukon to leave Mother Beard fuming among her pots. She finally solved the help problem by hiring Chinese, men like Let, Gin, Poy, and Billy, immortalized now in Beard’s recipes.
If hotel life was a natural theater, the landscape was a work of art. The waters teemed with Olympia oysters, Dungeness crab, razor clams, and Columbia River salmon. The woods were blue with huckleberries and blackberries. Tables were loaded with terrapin stew and chicken sautéed with wild mushrooms. The Yamhill Street public market offered seasonally white raspberries, husk tomatoes, morels, lemon cucumbers, dozens of heritage apples. Italian truck gardeners brought in cardoons, fava beans, leeks, and Savoy cabbages.
With all this natural bounty at their command, Mother Beard and Let battled daily over the proper way to make aspic capon, or curries, applying the ancient arts of China, England, and France to the provender of western shores. Beard remembers Let brandishing a knife and Mother parrying with a stick of firewood. But such quarrels ended in laughter and renewed argument over the proper way to preserve a fig. They instilled in the wide-eyed child watching “a love for food … the most varied gastronomic experiences any child ever had.” For an American child, it was a dream kitchen.
There was Let’s Wonderful Sweet Cream Biscuit and My Mother’s Black Fruitcake and My Father’s Favorite Pear Preserves. It was the great American amalgam, where Mother imported the muffin and crumpet rings of her youth so that Chinese Let could make perfect English crumpets,“dripping with butter and daubed with our strawberry jam,” as Beard wrote in his magnificent memoir,
Delights and Prejudices
. It was also a social amalgam of backyard, carside, and oceanside picnics. There were champagne parties, whist parties, bridge parties, fashionable luncheons and after-theater suppers. For a large fat boy, it was bliss.
He was so pampered, Beard recalls, that he became “as precocious and nasty a child as ever inhabited Portland.” His lifelong friend Mary Hamblet agreed that he was a holy terror on occasion but always so generous that to admire a toy was to be given it to keep. She also remembers what may have been his first culinary dish, as they played on the beach at Gearhart and made a sand pie. They frosted it with a pink marshmallow whipped with salt water. “Eat it,” said James.”And I did,” said Mary. “Because I adored him—and he was big.”
Gifted with a taste memory as acute as perfect pitch, Beard remembers his first gastronomic moment: after he’d crawled into a vegetable bin, he bit into a giant onion, eating it up skin and all. At three, sick with malaria, he remembers being fed a superb chicken jelly. At four, his father took him to dine out in Portland once a week so that he could begin to discriminate among restaurants. At five, his mother—in a lapse of discretion—took him to “a palace of high living” called the Louvre, where he sampled French cuisine in a burgundy boudoir setting. And at all ages, his Chinese godfather Let took him to eat in Chinatown.
Still, even as a child prodigy of gustation, his first love was not eating but acting. He advanced from charades in his mother’s hotel to playing Tweedledum in the Red Lantern Players’ production of
Alice in Wonderland
and Mr. Fuzzywig in their annual performance of
A Christmas Carol
. At nineteen, he set forth to be an opera singer, traveling by freighter
(The Highland Heather)
through the Panama Canal to London and Paris.
When a vocal ailment derailed that ambition, he sailed back to New York, played
at Walter Hampden’s Theater, and went on to radio in San Francisco, broadcasting food commercials. But when it was clear, after more than a decade’s trial, that he could not both act and eat, he chose to eat. He came back to Manhattan to become what he called a “gastronomic gigolo.” In 1937 jobs were scarce but hunger was not. So he cooked for his supper at the houses of friends, and still he went hungry. He went hungry until, with a pair of friends, he opened a catering shop on 66th Street and Park Avenue and went after the carriage trade. At last he had found his destiny. With his first book,
Hors d’Oeuvre & Canapés
in 1940, Beard spoke in a new voice for a new audience of both men and women. He revolutionized the feminine canapés of the time, those dabs and “doots” of cream cheese on soft white bread. Instead, he offered he-man highball stuff, like artichokes stuffed with caviar, smoked salmon rolls, brioche-onion rings. A year later, he hacked out the Real-Men-Eat-Good trail with
Cook It Outdoors
and later expanded it with cookery books on fowl and game, barbecue and rotisserie, and fish.
World War II interrupted his promising beginning with the draft. After a stint in a cryptography school, Beard was released from the Army to join the United Seamen’s Service. It was back to the boards and he directed shows at USS clubs from Marseilles to Rio. “Get him to take his teeth out and sing ‘Sylvie,’” said one of his oldest Portland friends, who remembered dying with laughter at Beard’s tales of entertaining servicemen abroad. Veteran traveler that he was, Beard also picked up tips on food, like a dessert made with avocado, lime, and sugar whipped up by a cook in Brazil.
At the war’s end, he found a new theater for food when NBC asked him to do the first major network cooking classes on television. “At last,” he thought, “a chance to cook and act at the same time.” Unfortunately, he had to share billing with a cow, fashioned by Bill Baird and produced by the Borden Company:
Elsie Presents James Beard in I Love to Eat.
A new medium inaugurated new “cuisines of advertisement” and a new age for the theater of food, but in 1946 Beard’s cooking show was way ahead of its time. It would be decades before television’s mainstream audience embraced the image of a man in an apron wielding an iron skillet and shouting,
Even without television, however, by the 1950s the Beard image of a bald man wearing a big grin and bow tie was as iconic as the ever-happy Green Giant. The Beard name branded American food the way
I Love Lucy
branded American comedy. In 1954
New York Times
dubbed Beard the “Dean of American Cookery,” but that was too pompous a term for such a genial man with such a democratic message: “If I can cook it, you can too.” His name became a household word through the continuous outpouring of his articles and books, and particularly his mass-market paperback in 1959,
The James Beard Cookbook.
It is still and forever my quick-reference kitchen bible, even though half the pages have fallen out. From then on he was the majordomo of the food establishment, a grinning Gargantua beaming over platters of fat sausages and hams and chops that fit the American mood in our heady decades of post-war affluence.
To those who carped that he worked too closely with the food industry promoting commodity products like Omaha Steaks and Camp Maple Syrup, Beard replied, “People take food too damn seriously. It’s something you enjoy and have fun with, and if you don’t, to hell with it.” He expressed the same credo in his
Theory & Practice of Good Cooking
in 1977: “In my twenty-five years of teaching I have tried to make people realize that cooking is primarily fun and that the more they know about what they are doing, the more fun it is.”