Saturday, May 05, 2018

Born Today In 1903, Cook, Cookbook Author James Beard

James Beard was born today, May 5, in 1903. He was an American cook, cookbook author, teacher and television personality. Beard was a champion of American cuisine who taught and mentored generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts. His legacy lives on in 20 books, other writings and his foundation's annual James Beard awards in a number of culinary genres.

Beard was born in Portland, Oregon. His mother operated the Gladstone Hotel, and his father worked at the city's customs house. The family vacationed on the Pacific coast in Gearhart, Oregon, where Beard was exposed to Pacific Northwest cuisine.

Common ingredients of this cuisine are salmon, shellfish, and other fresh seafood; game meats such as moose, elk, or venison; mushrooms, berries, small fruits, potatoes, kale and wild plants such as fiddleheads or young pushki (Heracleum maximum, or cow parsnip).

At age three Beard was bedridden with malaria, and the illness gave him time to focus on the food prepared by his mother and their Chinese helper; this helped prepare him for life at the forefront of culinary American chic. According to Beard he was raised by Thema and Jue-Let, who instilled in him a passion for Chinese culture. Beard reportedly "attributes much of his upbringing to Jue-Let," whom he refers to as his Chinese godfather.

David Kamp wrote, "In 1940 he realized that part of his mission [as a food connoisseur] was to defend the pleasure of real cooking and fresh ingredients against the assault of the Jell-O-mold people and the domestic scientists." Beard lived in France during the 1920s, where he experienced French cuisine at its bistros. After this exposure and the widespread influence of French food culture, he became a Francophile.

Beard briefly attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Although he was expelled for homosexuality in 1922, the college granted Beard an honorary degree in 1976. In 1923 he joined a theatrical troupe and studied voice and theater abroad until 1927, when he returned to the United States.

After training as a singer and actor, Beard moved to New York City in 1937. Unlucky in the theater, he and friend Bill Rhodes capitalized on the cocktail party craze by opening Hors d'Oeuvre, Inc., a catering company. This led to lecturing, teaching, writing and the publication of Beard's first cookbook in 1940: Hors D'Oeuvre and Canap├ęs, a compilation of his catering recipes. According to fellow cooking enthusiast Julia Child, this book put him on the culinary map. World War II rationing ended Beard's catering business. From August 1946 to May 1947, he hosted I Love to Eat, a live television cooking show on NBC, beginning his ascent as an American food authority. According to Child, "Through the years he gradually became not only the leading culinary figure in the country, but 'The Dean of American Cuisine.'"

According to the James Beard Foundation website, "In 1955, he established The James Beard Cooking School. He continued to teach cooking to men and women for the next 30 years, both at his own schools (in New York City and Seaside, Oregon), and around the country at women's clubs, other cooking schools, and civic groups. 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."

Beard brought French cooking to the American middle and upper classes during the 1950s, appearing on TV as a cooking personality. David Kamp (who discusses Beard at length in his book, The United States of Arugula) noted that Beard's was the first cooking show on TV. He compares Dione Lucas' cooking show and school with Beard's, noting that their prominence during the 1950s marked the emergence of a sophisticated, New York-based, nationally and internationally known food culture. Kamp wrote, "It was in this decade [the 1950s] that Beard made his name as James Beard, the brand name, the face and belly of American gastronomy." He noted that Beard met Alice B. Toklas on a trip to Paris, indicative of the network of fellow food celebrities who would follow him during his life and carry on his legacy after his death.

Beard was gay. According to Beard's memoir, "By the time I was seven, I knew that I was gay. I think it's time to talk about that now."


James Beard died of heart failure on January 21, 1985, at his home in New York City at age 81.

After Beard's death in 1985, Julia Child wanted to preserve his home in New York City as the gathering place it was during 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 efforts to purchase the house and create the James Beard Foundation. Beard's renovated brownstone at 167 West 12th Street in Greenwich Village, is North America's only historic culinary center. It is preserved as a gathering place where the press and general public could appreciate the talents of emerging and established chefs.

In 1986, the James Beard Foundation was established in Beard's honor to provide scholarships to aspiring food professionals and champion the American culinary tradition which Beard helped create. "Since its inception in 1991, the James Beard Foundation Scholarship Program has awarded over $4.6 million in financial aid to a variety of students—from recent high school graduates, to working culinary professionals, to career changers. Recipients come from many countries, and enhance their knowledge at schools around the world."

The annual James Beard Foundation Awards celebrate fine cuisine around Beard's birthday. Held on the first Monday in May, the awards ceremony honors American chefs, restaurants, journalists, cookbook authors, restaurant designers and electronic-media professionals. It culminates in a reception featuring tastings of signature dishes of more than 30 of the foundation's chefs. A quarterly magazine, Beard House, is a compendium of culinary journalism. The foundation also publishes the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Directory, a directory of all chefs who have presented a meal at the Beard House or participated in one of the foundation's outside fundraising events.

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