James Beard, Passionately — by Jane and Michael Stern

At 80, and ailing, his message is more emphatic than ever: Eat, drink and be merry.

“New York City, midtown, two-thirty in the afternoon. From inside Lutece, the city’s ritziest restaurant, James Andrews Beard steps onto the sidewalk. Office workers stream past, returning from lunch. Some glance up, stop in their tracks, and unabashedly stare at him. Or they walk by, then whip around for a double take. A cute blonde tourist from Wisconsin squeals like a rock and roll groupie, ‘Eeeww, it’s James Beard! I ADORE YOU!’ Others intone his name without a change of expression, as automatically as you might say ‘Hail Mary’ passing church. Majestically tall at six feet, four inches, with a girth to match, America’s master chef acknowledges each nod or greeting with kingly grace.

He is one of the most recognizable men in America, a figure familiar to virtually everyone who cooks… or eats. For more than thirty years this American Bacchus has appeared on television, in magazines and brochures and advertisements, always singing the joys of gastronomy. In more than two dozen volumes, from recipes for hors d’oeuvres to autobiographical cookbooks, his message has been the same: ‘Put on a fine show! Have fun with food.’ His exhortation to pleasure has made him a cultural icon, a national monument, something more than a chef. This is a man whose importance transcends the world of pots and pans and recipes.

Just how profoundly James Beard has shaped what America eats becomes apparent to us on May 5, 1983 the night of his 80th birthday, celebrated at a party thrown by The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York. In attendance are a group that Beard refers to as ‘eighty of my closest friends’ — America’s elite chefs, restaurateurs, culinary editors and writers, fancy food merchants and wine importers. All around are faces familiar from the dust jackets of the important cookbooks: Nika Hazelton, Lydie Marshall, Evan Jones. If a bomb dropped here, gourmets wouldn’t know what to cook for years.

Hard-nosed food editors and writers grow sentimental as toasts and speeches reiterate James Beard’s singular importance in creating American gastronomy. Were it not for him, few of us would have found a place writing about food; because it was he, more than anyone, who kindled our country’s passion for the subject.

New York magazine food writer Gael Greene is the mistress of ceremonies; Craig Claiborne reads a poem he has written for the occasion; Ronald and Nancy Reagan send their good wishes, as does Mayor Koch.

The banquet is stunning, and the Four Seasons is a perfect setting — this festive place was shaped in large degree by Beard himself, in his role as restaurant consultant. We have always thought of it as New York’s most awesome dining room — formal and huge. But a funny thing happens to it on James Beard’s birthday. The majestic ‘Pool Room’ now seems quite small as we join in an elephant walk of the food world’s luminaries through the dining area toward a spectacular buffet of roast suckling pigs and baby goats. This is a night on which ordinary rules of perspective are suspended. A grand night, bigger than life.

Rumors circulate that Beard’s friend Julia Child, conspicuous by her absence, is throwing her own party on the West Coast to celebrate her involvement in a newly established Wine and Food Institute. Both are invitations that any foodie cannot refuse, and yet some people have been invited to both coasts. What do they do? ‘Check into the hospital for the night,’ one wry diplomat at our table says, suggesting a night in intensive care would be preferable to choosing between America’s culinary king and queen.

But gossip is at a minimum. So many people at this dinner owe so much to the man of honor. And it is a special night because Beard is feeling fine. ‘It is a joy to see him so happy,’ says Judith Jones, his editor at Knopf, as she watches him drink champagne poured from bottles labeled especially for the occasion with likenesses of the birthday boy. ‘I can’t tell you how many recent birthdays I’ve had to visit Jim in a hospital room.’ But despite a number of illnesses that often accompany aging, he is just fine on this night to remember, pink-faced and reveling in his moment of glory.

For eighty years he has eaten as he pleased, and said what’s on his mind. (From his book Delights and Prejudices: ‘…there have been a few students for whom I would not have wept had they mistaken a flagon of hemlock for the apéritif.’) Now he is American food’s patriarch, but age and ill health haven’t mellowed him a bit. He is a man of gargantuan passions, relentless about those whom he dislikes (‘put a dead skunk in his mailbox,’ he advised us as a way to deal with a Connecticut-based food writer whose opinions we disdain); he is immensely generous, too: ‘I was a nobody until Jim showed me around the New York food world,’ one of the country’s top chefs confided to us weepily over dinner. And Mr. Beard’s large appetites haven’t diminished, either. He still feasts on what he wants, despite the doctor who twenty years ago told him to slow down, and who is here tonight, watching his patient eat, drink, and make merry.

The sweetest after-dinner testament comes from Mary Hamblett, Beard’s lifelong friend from Portland, Oregon, who tells the story of one of the master chefs first special meals — when 5-year-old Jimmy Beard made her eat a pie made of sand on the beach.

It was in Oregon that James Beard’s love of good food began — in the kitchen of his mother’s boardinghouse. As other boys might drag forth memories of a favorite train set or pet dog, he recalls the chicken jelly he relished at age 3, and his first onion, savored when he crawled into the vegetable bin and ate it skin and all. He talks in exact gastronomic details about the white asparagus his mother canned, the Welsh rabbit made by Let, their Chinese cook, and the great black-bottom pie he ate seventy-five years ago in a favorite Portland restaurant.

His childhood kitchen memories are laced with the humor that has become his trademark. ‘Once Let threatened mother with a knife, and once she tried to attack him with a piece of stovewood. But on each occasion the skirmish ended in fits of laughter.’ His mother, who ‘loved to cook, eat and talk food more than almost anyone else I have ever known,’ was a strong, romantic figure. ‘She would get up every morning at sunrise, put on her divided skirt and boots, and ride five miles, then come sweeping in at breakfast all aglow… to listen to the boarders’ complaints!’

Food was not his mother’s only legacy. ‘She shared her love of theater with me from the time I was an infant As I grew up, we remained at one on the theater and on music and food, but disagreed about almost everything else.’

It was to opera that young James Beard first aspired. In 1922, at 19, he took a freighter called the Highland Heather through the Panama Canal to London and Paris to study singing. But nodes on his vocal chords ended his promise as an opera star. ‘I simply concertized too much. I could never say no.’ He performed on stage in New York in Othello and Cyrano, and settled a few years in Hollywood, where in 1927 he played a bit part in Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. If you look very closely, you might see a young, bearded James Beard among the extras at the base of the cross.

But Beard hadn’t forgotten his first love, and in 1937 he left the West Coast for New York, where he was ‘determined to find a place somewhere in the food world. But it was a bleak year.’ After dozens of interviews, he had nothing but a job teaching French and social studies at a country day school in New Jersey. Meanwhile, ‘I discovered that friends and acquaintances liked my cooking; so I began the rounds of ‘cooking for my supper.’ I enjoyed myself, and I ate well. Also, in return for my services, I was invited with great regularity to parties. You might say that I was a gastronomic gigolo.’

It was at one of those cocktail parties that Beard’s career turned around. He found himself in a passionate discussion with a man named Bill Rhode about the ‘ghastly potato-chip-dip plague spreading across the land. We had eaten too many pieces of cottony bread soggy with processed cheese, anchovy fillets by the yard, and dried-up bits of ham and smoked salmon.’

Beard and Rhode and Rhode’s sister Irma decided to change all that. They opened a catering shop called Hors d’Oeuvre Inc. on 66th Street between Park and Lexington, where they turned out canapes more inventive than the little boring’ party nibbles Beard had dubbed ‘doots.’ Hors d’Oeuvre Inc. specialties included salami cornucopias, tiny artichokes stuffed with foie gras or caviar, and thick slices of cucumber filled with lobster meat.

Hors d’Oeovre Inc. was a success, and led naturally to Beard’s first book, published in 1940, Hors d’Oeuvres and Canapes.

But his writing career was cut short by the war. After brief training as a cryptographer, he left the Army, too old for active duty, ‘with not a cipher in sight except my own future.’ He took a job with the Merchant Marines setting up U.S.O. Club kitchens in the Caribbean, South America and France. From Marseilles, Beard ate his way inland, discovering the joy of French cooking, in Paris and the countryside. ‘I think I was the one who brought quiche to America,’ he says with a knowing wink, indicating the dubious mania for the dish in recent years.

James Beard as the world has come to know him began his culinary career once again when he returned to New York after the war, and was asked to appear on the first commercial food program to be televised in America. ‘At last,’ Beard wrote in his memoir, Delights and Prejudices, ‘a chance to cook and act at the same time.’

The show was called Elsie Presents, sponsored by Borden. A life-size Elsie the Cow puppet, manipulated by Bill Baird, introduced the chef by saying, ‘Elsie Presents — James Beard in ‘I Love to Eat!’ Being live television, it was not without its disasters, such as the time an electrical short set a turkey on fire. But it was the first in a long series of television cooking shows that made James Beard a household name, and introduced America to an ebullient man who taught that food could be fun. Over the pioneer airwaves, America’s cooks had found their mentor.

Almost forty years later, having been honored with every conceivable food award and distinction, James Beard has gone from a young man determined to find a place in the food world to the elder statesman of that world. He is the undisputed dean of American cooking, pursued by aspiring chefs, cookbook writers, and restaurateurs, to all of whom the blessings and good will of Beard are an invaluable treasure.

When we first met him, it was just a few months before his 80th birthday. We vacillated between fear and delight at the prospect. What could we possibly have to say that would not bore him to shreds? What had we eaten that he would like to hear about? ‘Don’t let the door scare you,’ he said cryptically when he gave us directions to his house. Then he hung up.

The scary door turns out to be a wrought iron gated affair, and once through it we meet him, decked out in a denim Mandarin-style jacket, blue and white striped T-shirt, and pants that if downscaled might be called jeans. He looms over us, defying the shrinking process that afflicts most octogenarian mortals. Skipping around his ankles is Percival, a pug puppy. At each step of Beard’s outsized black shoes, Percy skitters out of range, dancing back when the foot is safely set on the ground. Once Beard is seated, Percy scales his master like a tiny sherpa on a Himalayan mountain, finally reaching the summit, Beard’s formidable bald head. There they scowl lovingly at each other, both puffing slightly from the exertion of the trip from door to chair.

‘I love what you’ve done,’ Beard begins the conversation by complimenting our work; and somehow we are too awestruck or dumb to return the generosity.

We talk in his basement office, its walls thick with books, the desk adrift in galleys of about-to-be-published volumes sent to him by publishers like ours looking for a kind word. Pictures on the walls show him with the famous, awards are casually strewn about, as are tokens of thanks from product manufacturers, department stores, and students he has helped.

In the back is a two-story glassed-in dining room and garden which Beard smilingly refers to as his gazebo. Here, silver New York City sunlight floods the room, illuminating his vast collection of Majolica china.

Between office and dining room is the kitchen, a glorious work area filled to the brim with professional gauge equipment, copper pans, and bouquets of carving knives. And yet it doesn’t look a bit like the austere dream kitchens you see in Architectural Digest or House Beautiful. In fact, it looks like a king-sized version of our home kitchen, which is to say it looks well used — a place that sees plenty of exuberant cooking. That smudge of flour at the base of the Kitchen Aid mixer is grandly reassuring. It is here that Beard holds his cooking classes.

This gastronomic Zeus, who more than any other person is responsible for raising America’s food consciousness, never took a cooking class in his life. ‘I learned by observing great chefs, and by not being afraid to experiment’ He is proud of that; after all, it is yet another sign that cooking is easy!

‘If I were 20 now, you wouldn’t find me at the CIA. (Culinary Institute of America). They teach everything there but how to taste. That’s the key — tasting food. That’s what’s wrong with so much of the prepared food that is sold in the new ‘gourmet’ shops. Nobody tastes it!’

Beard’s own cooking school began in 1955, in the townhouse that is now the restaurant Lutece. His methods have always been hands-on, communicating the art of cooking without lapsing into a professorial drone. ‘I told one woman in my class last year to not come back. She wanted a teacher who would slap her hand with a ruler if she didn’t do everything by the book.’ Beard fights fastidiousness by teaching students to fold egg whites into soufflés with their hands, and to not be timid or scared that the soufflé will wilt. ‘The only thing that makes a soufflé fall is if it knows you are afraid of it!’ he proclaims.

‘When we opened the Four Seasons,’ he reminisces, ‘we had put in a soufflé oven, but realized we had no one to make them. So we found a boy in the bake shop who had never made a soufflé in his life. And in a few weeks he was making hundreds a day, because he didn’t even know to be afraid of them. You see, there is no mystery to cooking!’

‘If I have done nothing else, I have taught people to enjoy making food. I like what Julia (Child) is trying to do with her new television show,’ he says with a grin, his pointed ears and wrinkled brow stretching in a way that makes him look like a happy baby. ‘It is full of comedy; it’s really different.’

This is a man who has spent his career fighting food pedantry. ‘Early in the century, the home economists built up such solemnity about the kitchen,’ he tells us. ‘They encouraged people to carefully plan menus for the week, to study how much money they have, and how much food value each potato gives, and to cook the dullest meals in creation. Now the nutritionists are doing the same thing. I’m just about ready to say, ‘To hell with nutrition,’ if it means the drab menus they are creating.’

But what about America’s culinary revolution, the sophistication in cooking and eating that has evolved (in large part thanks to Beard) during the last twenty years? ‘What I like about this revolution is the return to simplicity, to our natural food treasures, such as wild mushrooms or fiddlehead ferns. We have a wonderful heritage of regional and melting pot dishes that are being rediscovered and newly enjoyed.

‘We have been going through this change since shortly after World War II, and I’m not sure how long it’s going to last, or where it will go. It’s happening hi Europe, as well, and I think it can be a good thing. But I don’t know why people describe it with those hideous terms like nouvelle American cuisine and New California cuisine, neither of which exists, or means anything. Our cuisine has always been a changing one, borrowing from our ethnic complexity. exchanging recipes with neighbors; but fundamentally, there is nothing new about the notion of American cuisine. I have known fine American food all my life.’

We ask his opinion of the restaurant scene, and his face changes expression; his eyes grow pensive; and as he knits his large hands together, we stare at broad fingers that have cracked thousands of dozens of eggs and whipped countless cake batters. ‘Fast food is now all over Europe; and that is still the almost overwhelming pattern in America.’

And yet he is not an outright enemy of modernity. Recently, when returning from a checkup at the hospital, Beard, with his assistant chef Richard Nimmo, found no easy alternative for lunch to a Big Mac. ‘We ate them. And let me tell you, the Big Mac is an efficient piece of food. If it weren’t, McDonald’s wouldn’t be where they are today. It filled me up, and it didn’t stink!’

He expresses great fondness for the Original Pancake House, a restaurant started decades ago in Portland, the first in a small chain of franchised operations that still serve really terrific breakfasts — such as caramelized apple pancakes and lofty German pancakes cooked in cast iron skillets. ‘They went about it in a scientific way, and they succeeded. I once named that place as one of the ten best restaurants in America.’

Although years as a restaurant consultant have tamped down any desires he might have had of opening his own, he is a man of fabulous fantasy restaurants. Some, like the posh Four Seasons, have been realized. More outrageous ones, confided to us in moments of whimsy — like the ‘Dark Meat Restaurant,’ serving only duck and game birds, or ‘the Sucking Room,’ specializing in noisy food like crab legs and lobsters — remain comic fantasies.

Beard’s sense of humor is inseparable from his culinary passions. When we ask him what food be would choose if he were going to be marooned on a desert island, he shoots back, ‘Mail order catalogues! I love shopping by mail!’ And he proceeds to list all the hams and bacon, jellies, teas and flours he sends away for.

‘I would like to see someone open a restaurant with the widest possible menu where you could order food by the ounce or by the piece. Portions would be junior, upper junior, senior, or gourmand. It would be a wonderful place, because people who don’t want to eat a lot feel conscience-stricken when they go into a restaurant and order only one thing. The closest thing to it is Dim Sum, but there you don’t have the variety.’

We go out to dinner with him at one of our own favorite places, Chanterelle, in New York. After a sumptuous dinner of oysters and quail and crème brûlée, he tells the hostess, ‘I hope we will be able to meet the chef,’ and in a moment, a thin and earnest young man in chef s whites appears at our table. ‘That was a very good meal,’ says Beard, ‘very suave indeed.’ Then there is a moment of silence as Beard looks the chef up and down. ‘But I have some advice for you,’ he says with a dramatic pause and a slow smile. ‘Eat something! You’re too thin!’ As we exit the small restaurant, every head at every table tarns to watch the great man leave.

What is it like being a traffic stopper? ‘I love being James Beard,’ he tells us with a smile. ‘I’ve always been a ham. And I love to upset people.’ It isn’t only because he has attained the status of grand old man that James Beard is outspoken. He has always enjoyed rocking the boat. ‘I was scared when I introduced the recipe for chicken with forty cloves of garlic, and at first people were shocked; but then they tried it and they saw that the cooking tempered the garlic, and that it wasn’t such a crazy thought.’ The recipe has become a classic.

His regrets are few. ‘I think my ambition in life was to make the grade, whatever I did. Oh, I wish I had learned a few more languages when I was young. But then I thought I knew everything. I should have worked harder.’

That is a strange wish from this man, because at an age when many have retired, James Beard works harder than anyone we know. Despite legs that don’t move as well as they did, and a body too large to be comfortably accommodated in most taxi cabs or theater seats, he is out on the town far more often than we.

‘How is he?’ is the first question everyone asks us if we tell them we have just recently seen James Beard; because everyone knows that his health is frail. And we always answer that he is fine; because he always is, even when the doctors tell him otherwise… even when his 80-year-old body tells him otherwise. He relishes living too much to give in to illness, and although the last few years have been scary ones, in and out of the hospital, endless trying medical tests, he has an amazing capacity for bouncing back.

In one week last month, he had been to three parties, a few restaurant dinners, and a book-signing for his new Calendar and Recipe Book of Regional American Cooking tor 1984. The week before we had seen him as the centerpiece of a party for 400 people, all of whom were eager to meet and talk with him. On the phone the next morning, his voice was weak. ‘How do you feel?’ we asked. ‘Trampled,’ came his game reply.

Earlier this year, his definitive Beard on Pasta was published. He is just beginning a culinary autobiography — a monumental project, considering the prodigious life it will encompass. He teaches classes, writes articles, dotes over Percy, and gives people like us help in plotting out a new book. We’ve never heard him say he didn’t have time to help. Asked what be would like his epitaph to read, he responds, ‘I did it all!’

Whenever we visit him, he is buoyant with news of a fabulous new book he has just read in galleys, or a restaurant he’s discovered that we have to try. To see him hosting his own party at his own house, dressed in his black and white checked suit and red bow tie, his grin lighting up a face that would look at home on a Mandarin deity, is to see a man who knows how to savor life. And the wonderful thing about that is that he has spent a career showing the rest of us how to do it.”
-Excerpt and (top) image courtesy of Newspapers.com, Hartford Courant, Northeast Magazine, “James Beard, Passionately,” by Jane and Michael Stern, Cover illustration by Bruce Wolfe, December 11, 1983

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s