With the help of The Daily Meal Council, we have selected ten key figures in the history of food to honor this year in our Hall of Fame. Here, Council member Camas Davis, food writer and founder of the Portland [Oregon] Meat Collective, explains why cookbook author and American food champion James Beard belongs on the roster.
In my early 20s, I moved to New York City from my native Oregon and promptly embedded myself on the editorial staff of a food magazine. I was young, and rather clueless about the world of food, but my bosses sent me out to restaurant openings and media events and trusted I’d find my way. I heard a lot of names thrown around at these gatherings, names I was clearly supposed to know but didn’t. Where I was from, so far as I knew, we didn’t have any big names in the food world — not yet, anyway. But, inevitably, every time I told someone I was from Oregon, they always brought up some guy named James Beard.
“Oh! Oregon! Did you ever meet James Beard?”
“Oregon! The land of James Beard and crab cakes!”
I had no idea who this James Beard was, but I wasn’t about to let anyone else know that.
"Oh, James, yes. He does make a mean crab cake,” I’d reply (innocent of the fact, of course, that he’d passed away in 1985.)
There was also always talk of some fabled townhouse in Greenwich Village named after this Beard, where all the top chefs went to show off their skills once they’d been “chosen.”
“Are you going to Jean-George’s Beard dinner tonight?”
“Did you hear Pasternak got a Beard award?”
Fearing I’d be exposed as the rookie I so obviously was, I never did get up the nerve to ask any of my colleagues who James Beard was, but one evening, after everyone at the magazine had gone home, I paid a visit to our library’s shelves and found him. As it turned out, I recognized the man staring back at me. In fact, I’d known him my entire life.
That shiny, ovular head. Those laughing eyes. That warm, mischievous smile. That bow tie. Those huge, goofy ears that looked like they could hear, literally, everything. That moustache. The beautiful, voracious rotundity of his physical form.
I knew James Beard (1903–1985) in the way that so many of us do. Because his face has eternally stared out at me from the cookbook shelves of my family members, my friends, my neighbors. Because when I stayed home sick from grade school, I was sometimes lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him on TV holding a wooden spoon full of steaming broth to his lips. Because every shrimp Louie and onion sandwich I have ever eaten can be traced back to one of his cookbooks. Because I grew up on Beard’s crab cake recipe without even knowing it was his. Because James Beard was and still is the kind of icon who seeps so deeply into our lives that we take him for granted. We almost forget who he is, because he is so much a part of us. We are made of James Beard. Our dinner tables? They are made of James Beard, too.
“In the beginning, there was James Beard,” someone — Nora Ephron? Gael Greene? — once wrote. She was right. Our modern food lives began with James Beard: caterer, culinary teacher, newspaper columnist, cookbook writer, "the Dean of American Cookery,” “America’s first foodie.”
James Beard’s own beginnings looked like this: Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903; his mother, passionate about food, ran a boarding house, and his father worked at Portland’s Customs house. The family spent summers surrounded by the foggy splendor of the Oregon Coast, feasting on wild strawberries and razor clams, Dungeness crab and Shoalwater oysters, an experience he writes about extensively in his memoir Delights and Prejudices. What we think of today as true Pacific Northwest cuisine, a cuisine shaped by Oregon’s native bounty — salmon, trout, and elk, fiddlehead ferns and morels, cow parsnip and huckleberries — in turn, shaped Beard. One could easily argue that our country’s current food culture — the Food Network, Top Chef, Kitchen Confidential, our “great irrepressible gourmania,” as Gael Greene wrote back in 1985 — would not even exist were it not for James Beard.
But it was his travels in England and France in the 1920s and his move to New York City in 1937 that expanded his own notion of what a truly homespun American cuisine could look like. Although he had trained as a singer and actor, he launched his own catering company to capitalize on the cocktail party craze that had swept the city. In 1940 he compiled his recipes into a book, Hors D'Oeuvre and Canapés, which most certainly launched Beard into the public eye. By 1946, he had hosted America’s first food show, I Love to Eat, on NBC. And by 1955 he was an established newspaper columnist and had established the James Beard Cooking School, where, for the next 30 years, he taught home cooks and professional chefs alike how to cook simple, honest food with fresh ingredients. His delights and prejudices have had a lasting effect on our country’s appetites. In fact, one could easily argue that our country’s current food culture — the Food Network, Top Chef, Kitchen Confidential, our “great irrepressible gourmania,” as Gael Greene wrote back in 1985 — would not even exist were it not for James Beard.
While Beard’s television persona and bow-tied visage are most assuredly seared into our collective cultural memory, his influence on us came largely via the written word. Throughout his exhaustive, and very autobiographical, body of work — from his syndicated newspaper columns to some 22 books on food, including titles like Cook It Outdoors (1941) and Beard on Food (1974) — Beard urged us to feed ourselves with good, simple, accessible ingredients. He wanted us to embrace the theatricality of food: “…[O]ffering food to people is a matter of showmanship, and no matter how simple the performance, until you do it well, with love and originality, you have a flop in your hands,” he wrote in Delights and Prejudices. Beard spoke about eating locally and seasonally like there was, really, no other way to cook. He inspired us to throw out our Jell-O molds and to love our wooden spoons. His thriftiness and inventiveness made him a true American cook. He wished for us to see what he saw: that our meat loaves and crab cakes and curried deviled eggs were the building blocks of American cuisine, a cuisine worthy of pride, revelry, and celebration.
"America has the opportunity, as well as the resources, to create for herself a truly national cuisine,” Beard wrote in The Fireside Cook Book in 1949, “that will incorporate all that is best in the traditions of the many people who have crossed the seas to form our new, still-young nation."
Our nation may still be relatively young, but the myriad, delicious ways in which Beard has seeped into our cultural and culinary bones feel age-old, in all the right ways.