James Beard, born this day in 1903, was a pioneer in establishing America’s early gourmet food identity. Here’s a look at the life of the chef and food writer and his influence on the country’s culinary tastes.
Born to an English immigrant mother who ran The Gladstone Hotel in Portland and a father who worked at the custom house, James Beard was exposed to a variety of foods at a very early age. In his autobiography, he claims his first memory dates back to when he was two years old and visited the Lewis and Clark Exposition. The exposition featured an Italian pavilion with huge marble statues, performances by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a simulated Irogot village featuring live Philippine natives, sideshows, amusement park rides and paintings by Claude Monet.
But what captivated the toddling Beard was watching crackers being made.
“I was taken to the exposition two or three times,” Beard writes in a memoir published five years after his death. “The thing that remained in my mind above all others — I think it marked my life — was watching Triscuits and shredded wheat biscuits being made. Isn't that crazy? At two years old that memory was made. It intrigued the hell out of me.”
The hotel’s cooking staff were made up chiefly of Asians, who, when not preparing European-influenced dishes like terrapin stew and vol-au-vent with creamed Olympia oysters, introduced the young child to a variety of Chinese foods. The family also spent their summers in coastal Gearhart, Oregon, where they would prepare meals using fresh fish, berries and whatever else was at hand.
After being expelled from Reed College in 1922 for homosexual activity (decades later, the school awarded him an honorary degree), Beard joined a traveling theatrical troupe. He spent the next four years abroad trying unsuccessfully to make a living acting, along the way exposing himself to the cuisine of Paris and being tutored in the ways of Italian food by a vocal instructor he hoped would make him an opera star.
Returning to the U.S., he spent sometime on the West Coast before settling in New York in 1937. There he started his first culinary enterprise, a catering business called Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., that specialized in Manhattan cocktail parties. The business did well, but was sidelined during WWII as many of the exotic foods they depended on became impossible to find. But the enterprise had established Beard as a food expert, and in 1940 he published his first of many cookbooks, Hors d'Oeuvres & Canapés.
Beard served during WWII, doing some cryptography but chiefly helping set up sailors’ canteens in South and Central America. Returning from the war, he became even more immersed in establishing American food culture, publishing seven books between 1945 and 1955, as well as numerous articles for magazines like Women’s Day and House & Garden. He also appeared on America’s first cooking show in 1946 – I Love to Eat, pre-dating Julia Child’s show by 15 years – ran his own restaurant in Nantucket and had by the mid-1950s established himself as the New York Times-anointed ‘dean of American cookery.’
In 1955, he opened the James Beard Cooking School, first in New York and later in Seaside, Oregon. In order to fund the school in the early days, he found himself having to compromise his gastronomic values by endorsing products from Green Giant, whose canned vegetables violated his belief in using fresh, local and seasonal ingredients.
Overweight as a child, Beard’s vocation helped keep him a portly adult (“A gourmet who thinks of calories,” he once quipped, “is like a tart who looks at her watch”). In the mid-'70s, a heart condition forced him to go on a low-calorie, low-salt diet that helped him shed much of his weight, but he remained, in the words of his friend Julia Child, “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.”
Beard continued to teach, write and act as a food consultant up until his death in 1985 from heart failure at the age of 81. His ashes were scattered on the coast of Gearhart, Oregon, where he enjoyed so many childhood summers.
Today, Beard’s legacy lives on not just in the James Beard Foundation Awards – known as the Oscars of American cooking – but in the country’s entire gourmet food culture, from celebrity chefs on The Food Network to the burgeoning farm-to-table movement eschewing industrial agriculture and stressing local, organically grown ingredients.
Despite a sophisticated palate and an encyclopedic knowledge of cuisine, Beard’s philosophy was simple. “I don't like gourmet cooking or ‘this’ cooking or ‘that’ cooking,” he said. “I like good cooking.”