What Ever Happened to
James Beard?

James Beard

Food lovers everywhere recognize his name, thanks to the James Beard Foundation and its well-publicized annual awards. Chefs and cookbook authors, at least if they’re of a certain age, are likely to know his books, and may even poke through them now and then. And of course, anyone who was his friend, student, or colleague still misses him, and has a stash of affectionate Jim Beard stories ready for the telling. But apart from the awards, usually given out around the time of his May 5 birthday (though the festivities are in June this year), Beard has pretty much disappeared. He was a colossus in American cookery, and now he’s barely a memory. What happened?

Today we’re accustomed to seeing food celebrities leap to fame, reign for a moment, then fade. But there was nothing superficial or faddish about Beard’s cooking: he was concerned with the essentials of technique, taste, and pleasure just as Julia Child was, and he was way ahead of her in his passion for American ingredients. What’s more, he made his reputation without the help of television. By the time he died in 1985, at the age of 81, he had produced 22 cookbooks and countless articles for every newspaper and magazine imaginable. Huge, bald, and genial, he was an unmistakable figure wherever he showed up around the country—giving a demonstration, judging a cooking contest, presiding at a table full of friends at the best restaurants. Julia remarked that he must have been happy indeed to see all the front-page stories about him that ran the day after his death, and she was only half joking. It was Beard, she often recalled, who told her early on that the way to sell cookbooks was to stay in the public eye—write, speak, teach, be photographed, be interviewed, keep publishing.

But Beard’s celebrity was associated with American cooking, a category that couldn’t quite contain him over the long haul. By the 1980s many home cooks wanted to dazzle, and they were learning how from the immensely appealing Silver Palate Cookbook. Others needed an introductory book, so they turned to Marion Cunningham’s fresh, personable take on the venerable Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Beard, meanwhile, was writing straightforward recipes free of glitz, in part because that’s the nature of traditional American cooking, and in part because he was often writing for a mass market. Yet he wasn’t treating food the way Betty Crocker or any of the other corporate-backed kitchen bibles did. His message was utterly different from theirs: He wanted Americans to do honest, hands-on cooking, to enjoy their time in the kitchen, and to revel in the ingredients of their own country. Among the comprehensive teaching cookbooks, only Joy of Cooking displayed Beard’s wide-ranging curiousity and intelligence. But Irma Rombauer had the gifts of a genuine populist: Her book could teach, inspire and charm readers of every culinary persuasion, in a way that Beard’s books could not. He had the right message; he just wasn’t very good at delivering it.

Or rather, he made lackadaisical use of the available vehicles. Assistants and editors did much of his writing; he projected poorly on television, and the message itself disintegrated over the years as he sold his name to the food industry again and again, flacking the very products that his best work argued against. His books and articles were authoritative and good-natured, but they were relatively impersonal.

Where he flourished was the stage. Beard had started out hoping for a career in theater, and the kitchen to him represented a kind of performance space as well as a livelihood. There he was the star of every show, whether it was a dinner for friends, a class in his school, or a public cooking demonstration. And it worked—he reached his audience, and people got the full experience of his mind and personality—but you had to be there. It didn’t happen in print.

Beard inspired tremendous love and respect from the people who knew him in person, and they treasured what he taught them. Successful cookbook writers as far apart in style as Barbara Kafka and Marion Cunningham have often said how much they owe him; and Julia, who adored him, paid him the highest compliment she could pay: She called him “un serieux,” someone serious about cooking. Cecily Brownstone, the sharp and knowledgable food editor at the Associated Press for nearly 40 years, remembered until the end of her long life what a delight it was get his phone calls early every morning—as she said, they were probably the only two food people in New York awake at that hour. Alice B.Toklas developed a crush on him in the 1950s that might have made Gertrude Stein nervous if she hadn’t died years earlier (and if Beard hadn’t been as comfortably homosexual as Toklas and Stein were). “His students are his extended family,” wrote Betty Fussell in Masters of American Cookery, describing how they came back year after year to his classes, basking in his exuberant personality and absorbing the fundamentals and secrets he dispatched with delight.

So yes, there’s a legacy—one that has passed almost unnoticed from his colleagues and students to generations of home cooks. It’s real, but it’s invisible. Apart from an occasional mention of James Beard’s famous spareribs, or James Beard’s famous cream biscuits, his impact on American cooking has become anonymous.

I wonder if this is what Beard himself would have chosen—an indirect legacy, diffused over the years until it has lost all connection with the source. Somehow I doubt it. He did love a spotlight. I can imagine him right now, up in that sunny, fragrant kitchen that awaits all good cooks, sharing a celestial breakfast with Eliza Leslie as they exchange indignant details about their mutual misfortune—so much fine work, so little lasting fame! “Okay, so the food historians know who we are, and we’re in the bibliographies of ten food-studies dissertations this year—mazel tov. Where are the biopics, where are the Eliza Leslie Herb Gardens and the James Beard Sustainable Northwest Fisheries? Those ingrates! They deserve just what they’ve gotten, and what is her name? Somebody Ray? My dear, have you seen her?”

The New York University Critical Topics Series is presenting two panel discussions about Beard and his legacy this week, one in New York City on May 1 and the other in Napa, CA on May 3.

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