James Beard, the Original Foodie
By: Legacy Staff
3 years ago
Taking your time has never been trendier – at least when it comes to food.
While diners may not wish to wait hours for dinner to arrive, they revel in the thought of "slow food" – each ingredient sourced with care and fashioned into delectable courses worthy of buzzwords such as "artisanal" and "farm-to-table." But long before this mentality took hold, James Beard was extolling the virtues of "slow" cooking.
Like many great minds before him (see Picasso, Nikola Tesla, Leonardo da Vinci, et al.), Beard missed the heyday of his invention; he died Jan. 21, 1985, a year before Slow Food International was founded as a pushback against the growing fast-food, ultraprocessed culture Beard himself hated. It seems a shame that he wasn't around for the revolution he inspired, but underneath the principles of Slow Food – which champions local and native foods (and celebrates the sensual pleasures of cooking and eating) – Beard's influence has remained a lasting bedrock. Today's foodies owe Beard their gratitude for blazing a trail from processed and bland to whole and delectable, with emphasis on fresh and local flavors.
When Beard died, he must have been dismayed with the American food landscape. In the 1980s, processed foods exploded in variety, and fat-free eating was almost a religion. Beard, an inventive chef who used more butter than Paula Deen would know what to do with, wouldn't have condoned the fat-free craze, we suspect. He was a big man with big appetites, and he seemed to know instinctively what science is discovering today: Fat isn't such a big deal. And it tastes good. Taste, a value that got a bit lost in mid-20th-century America, was the most important thing about cooking for Beard. Today, top chefs (and amateur home cooks) are following in Beard's footsteps in so many ways. Here are just a few of them.
In the 2010s, farmers markets are elbow to elbow with shoppers supporting their local growers and looking for the freshest produce, dairy and meat. Many seek out region-specific treats: serviceberries in cool climates, fresh-caught seafood on the coasts, citrus in the south. They're building demand for something Beard loved: American food.
When Beard got his start as a young chef in the 1930s and '40s, fine dining had one name: French. Beard himself cooked (and loved) French cuisine, but he also advocated something that seemed, at the time, much more prosaic. That was American food, cooked with American ingredients, like the Pacific Northwestern foods he grew up on in Portland, Oregon – salmon and moose, mushrooms and fiddleheads. But as transportation technology improved and made imported food cheaper and more accessible, local staples became boring in comparison to exotic delicacies from around the globe. Local food languished and farmers markets were few and far between, frequented by hippies and iconoclasts. Everybody else was busy making Jell-O molds studded with imported canned pineapple chunks.
Beard cooked cuisines from around the world, but he never lost sight of the importance of local food. His Fowl and Game Cookery instructs the reader on how to cook squirrel and pheasant, among other meats that were more likely to come from nearby woods than from the grocery store. New Fish Cookery offers recipes featuring oysters and crab and even grunion, a California-and-Mexico-specific fish that you're unlikely to find in any international cuisines. By championing these local flavors, Beard helped create and maintain American cuisine as something better than burgers and casseroles.
Beard may or may not have liked the idea of the Paleo diet, and we're pretty sure the staunch meat-and-dairy-lover wouldn't have had much use for veganism. However, many of today's popular cooking styles and trends probably would have made Beard beam with joy (and reach for another bite). More specifically:
Beard championed grilling and outdoor cooking as early as 1941, with his book Cook It Outdoors, and later with The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery and others, in which he offered recipes and methods for the barbecue grill gourmand. He wrapped veggies in foil, slathered French bread with butter and slapped it on the grill to accompany his garlicky burger patties, offered recipes for campsite cuisine and shipboard stoves, and appealed over and over to a new type of weekend warrior: the husband who took over cooking duties in order to play with fire on the back porch. Today's home meat smokers and multilevel backyard grill suites just might have made Beard weep with joy.
Fat was never a bad word to Beard, who advocated the liberal use of butter and heavy cream in recipes such as his Braised Onion Sauce and Cream Biscuits. And the word that was, for a while, the scariest in the food world is now being reclaimed as nutrition scientists discover that fat is crucial to health, and the process of removing it from whole foods makes those foods less healthy overall. Beard may not have cared about the health benefits of fat, but he knew it made the flavors in his recipes sing. With the latest news, we can all enjoy his recipes with a lot less guilt.
For years, processed food ruled over the kitchen, making full meals quick and easy to get onto the table. Beard hated it, and much of his cooking life was devoted to advocating the pleasure and fun of cooking real, whole foods. Today, you can't scroll down your news feed without tripping over a few "30-day whole food challenges" or listicles explaining why processed equals bad. We're finally coming around to Beard's point of view.
In 2015, it's hard to turn on the TV without bumping into a food-related show, whether it's a famous chef showing us how it's done, a collection of up-and-comers competing for glory or a struggling restaurant's no-punches-pulled makeover. Beard helped make that happen when he hosted the first-known network TV cooking show, I Love to Eat. Presented in the very earliest days of television from 1946 to 1947, it was initially a 15-minute program, and then grew to 30 minutes as Beard presented more-complex recipes. Not much else is known about the show, since technology hadn't yet been developed to record programs in 1946 – though an audio recording of one episode survives. We do know that Beard got in at the beginning of a genre that would prove immensely popular and only continue to grow as the decades passed.
Today, many home chefs learn by watching, whether they're chopping onions vicariously while tuning in to a Food Network cooking show or viewing a YouTube video featuring a skilled amateur's favorite recipe. In 1946, this was a completely new concept; most people learned to cook at their mother's knee or perhaps by taking a class or enrolling in a culinary school. Beard pioneered this new teaching style, which fragmented his students around the country and didn't give them a chance to ask questions. Some might not have even been watching to learn, just as today many viewers of Top Chef, Chopped and more watch for the fun of the competition rather than to pick up cooking tips.
Beard inspired his contemporaries, including the legendary Julia Child, whose The French Chef debuted on TV in 1963 and carried on the genre Beard created. Thirty years after his death, his influence only grows as the James Beard Foundation promotes American chefs and cuisine in his honor. Their grants, scholarships and educational programs help nurture new and rising-star chefs, and conferences and retreats bring established chefs and newbies together to discuss and influence the American culinary landscape.
Even better known are the James Beard Awards, considered the food world's Oscars. Each year, they honor the country's best chefs and restaurateurs, as well as cookbook authors, food journalists and other industry movers and shakers. Past winners include Emeril Lagasse, the New Orleans chef known for his use of Creole and Cajun flavors as well as for shouting "Bam!"; Alice Waters, owner of Berkeley's Chez Panisse and a major driver of the Slow Food movement; Wolfgang Puck, who popularized California cuisine and won a regional James Beard Award and, later, the foundation's lifetime achievement award; and many more nationally known names and local favorites. Each of these chefs has his or her own unique style, perhaps miles away from the type of cooking Beard himself did, but they carry on his legacy when they share the pleasure of food with their audiences.
You don't need to be a world-famous chef to carry on Beard's legacy, either. More than two dozen of Beard's cookbooks survive him, and any home cook can savor the cuisine he promoted by turning to his recipes and making them for family and friends. Do you have a favorite James Beard recipe? Tell us about it on Facebook.
Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.