American chef and food writer JAMES BEARD was born (d. 1985). Recognized by many as the father of American gastronomy, throughout his life he pursued and advocated the highest standards, and served as a mentor to emerging talents in the field of the culinary arts.
According to the James Beard Foundation, “After a brief stint at Reed College in Portland,” (from which he was expelled in 1922 for homosexual activity) in 1923 Beard went on the road with a theatrical troupe. He lived abroad for several years studying voice and theater, but returned to the United States for good in 1927.” He trained initially as a singer and actor, and moved to New York City in 1937. Not having much luck in the theater, he and his friend, Bill Rhodes, capitalized on the cocktail party craze by opening a catering company, “Hors D’Oeuvre, Inc.”, which led the publication of Beard’s first cookbook, Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés, a compilation of his catering recipes.
In 1946, he appeared on an early televised cooking show, I Love to Eat, on NBC, and thus began his rise as an eminent American food authority. Beard began lecturing, teaching, and writing books and articles. Child states, “Through the years he gradually became not only the leading culinary figure in the country, but `The Dean of American Cuisine’.” In 1955, he established The James Beard Cooking School and taught cooking for the next 30 years around the country. He was a tireless traveler, bringing his message of good food, honestly prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients, to a country just becoming aware of its own culinary heritage.
James Beard is the central figure in the story of the establishment of an American food identity. He was an eccentric personality who brought French cooking to the American middle and upper classes in the 1950s. Many consider him the father of American-style cooking. His legacy lives on in twenty books, numerous writings, his own foundation, and his foundation’s annual Beard awards in various culinary genres.
Julia Child accurately sums up Beard’s personal life in an brief description: “Beard was the quintessential American cook. Well-educated and well-traveled during his eighty-two years, he was familiar with many cuisines but he remained fundamentally American.
He was a big man, over six feet tall, with a big belly, and huge hands. An endearing and always lively teacher, he loved people, loved his work, loved gossip, loved to eat, loved a good time.”
Child’s summary makes two significant omissions. The first is that he was gay. Beard’s memoir states: “By the time I was seven, I knew that I was gay. I think it’s time to talk about that now.” The second was Beard’s own admission of possessing “until I was about forty-five, I guess a really violent temper.”
The New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman (who did not know Beard personally) describes him in a similar way: “In a time when serious cooking meant French cooking, Beard was quintessentially American, a westerner whose mother ran a boardinghouse, a man who grew up with hotcakes and salmon and meatloaf in his blood. A man who was born a hundred years ago on the other side of the county, in a city, Portland, that at the time was every bit as cosmopolitan as, say, Allegheny PA.”
Craig Claiborne, Beard’s contemporary (whose birthday is tomorrow) called Beard “an innovator, an experimenter, a missionary in bringing the gospel of good cooking to the home table. Physically he was the connoisseur’s connoisseur. He was a giant panda, Santa Claus and the Jolly Green Giant rolled into one. On him, a lean and slender physique would have looked like very bad casting.” Beard died of heart failure at the age of 81. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered over the beach in Gearhart, Oregon, United States, where he spent his summers as a child.
After Beard’s death in 1985, Julia Child had the idea to preserve his home in New York City as the gathering place it was throughout his life. Peter Kump, a former student of Beard’s and the founder of the Institute of Culinary Education (formerly Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School), spearheaded the effort to purchase the house and create the James Beard Foundation.
Beard’s renovated brownstone is located at 167 West 12th Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village. It is North America’s only historical culinary center, a place where Foundation members, the press, and the general public are encouraged to savor the creations of both established and emerging chefs from across the country and around the globe. The annual James Beard Foundation Awards are given at the industry’s biggest party, part of a fortnight of activities that celebrate fine cuisine and Beard’s birthday.
Held on the first Monday in May, the Awards ceremony honors the finest chefs, restaurants, journalists, cookbook authors, restaurant designers, and electronic media professionals in the country. It culminates in a reception featuring a tasting of the signature dishes of more than 30 of the James Beard Foundation’s very best chefs.
The foundation also publishes a quarterly magazine, Beard House, a comprehensive compendium of the best in culinary journalism. The foundation also publishes the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Directory, a directory of all chefs who have either presented a meal at the Beard House or have participated in one of the foundation’s out-of-House fundraising events. (This writer has cooked at the Beard House twice!)